Spiritual Adventure Should Get You High
That’s what the poster says. It hangs in Lerner Hall, the student center at Columbia University. Below the headline: an image of a snowboarder cresting a high white peak, the sun flaring behind him. And then the details. There would be a meditation class on campus Friday night, right upstairs, on the fourth floor.
As an undergraduate, I am neither sporty nor supernal, but something about that headline gets me. I’ve had, let’s say, misadventures getting high of late. Humiliating blackout behavior has begun to eclipse the thrill of binge drinking. And calorie restriction, which once offered its own euphoria, has turned to the shame of self-induced vomiting.
There’s also something seductive about the modal verb choice: should. Yes, the word is used to give advice or make recommendations—but behind those suggestions there’s an implicit criticism. I’m not doing my life right. That’s what I think when I read it.
Amanda Montell might classify the unique configuration of words in that poster headline as “cultish,” a term she’s coined to describe the dialect of manipulation employed by “cults” from Scientology to SoulCycle. In her new book, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, Montell argues that cultish groups from Jonestown to Amway use language as the ultimate form of power to convert, condition, and coerce their followers. “Language,” she argues, “is a leader’s charisma. It’s what empowers them to create a mini universe—a system of values and truths—and then compel followers to heed its rules.” Through a combination of storytelling and research, Montell examines what causes people to join and remain in cults, with a specific focus on how linguistic patterns affect followers.
The book is divided into six sections, and, following the introduction, explores five different categories of cults. Suicide cults, including Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate; controversial religions like Scientology and Children of God; multilevel marketing companies; cult fitness studios; and social media gurus. This book is important right now not just because of the cultish verbal elements that pervade modern startups, Peloton leaderboards, and social media feeds, but because of the ways cultish language is being employed by the fascist leaders of the growing far-right, across the globe—including, of course, our former president. Cultish concludes with an interrogation of QAnon.
But for me, personally, twenty years after reading that headline—Spiritual Adventure Should Get You High—this book offers a new way to process an old trauma. Because even as I rolled my eyes at the poster’s unstudied graphic design, the cultish headline began the slow and deliberate work of conversion. I attended that meditation class—and many thereafter—beginning an engagement that would, over several months, slip into a cult enrollment that lasted three years and shaped a lifetime.
Get Your Power Up
This is my meditation teacher’s initial instruction. He tells me that my life is out of control because I lack “personal power.” I am to address this through meditation, exercise, and career. I follow his suggestions. The meditation helps. It calms my skittish mind, and my schoolwork improves. Jogging helps, too. The endorphin release relieves my depression, and I gain confidence simply moving forward through space. The new friends I meet in meditation class offer useful employment advice for a working-class kid racking up Ivy League debt. With their resume help, I go from swiping IDs at the dorms to database scripting for a university-funded tech startup. I spend more and more time with these friends—and the words they use begin to infiltrate my vocabulary.
“From the crafty redefinition of existing words (and the invention of new ones) to powerful euphemisms, secret codes, renamings, buzzwords, chants and mantras,” Montell says, “language is the key means by which all degrees of cultlike influence occur.” The dialect with which I become familiar includes an unwieldy new age mix of terms appropriated from Buddhism, Hinduism, Carlos Castaneda’s Toltec shamanism, and late capitalism as informed by the Protestant Reformation. It begins simply enough: Be in the world, not of it. If you want to improve your mood, you need to move your assemblage point. Your income reflects your spiritual progress. But soon, language is used to create an us-versus-them dichotomy. For instance: Those who practice the dharma in our sangha are bodhisattvas with a lower likelihood of reincarnating as humans.
Erase Your Personal History
This is the next step in my instruction. I’ve already distanced myself from friends and family to an extent. Meditation classes and my new work-study job have kept me busy. Now I’m to consciously cut lines with low-vibe humans to free myself from their encumbering thoughts. I see some sense in this; many of my friends are depressed. They drink too much. But I feel guilty skipping Christmas with the family, opting to take a group trip instead. And I’m tormented when I break up with a boyfriend for someone new in the group. Montell would say that I’m being conditioned into dependency, such that life outside of the sangha no longer feels possible. Conditioning, she writes, is “what makes people stick by the group far longer than anyone on the outside can understand.”
It’s only now that I visit one new friend’s apartment and see the large, framed photo at her meditation altar. Pictured: a young, blonde-haired blue-eyed man in a suit and tie. She tells me this is Rama. He founded and grew a spiritual community that reached far beyond the half-dozen or so young people in our meditation class, but he is no longer in the body. He passed on into enlightenment. “Some say,” Montell notes, “the mark of a truly ‘successful’ cult is the power to outlast the death or cancellation of its founder.”
But don’t research him! This young woman warns me. The media is afraid of enlightenment. They hate it. Just like the Romans hated Jesus. Montell shares numerous examples of this kind of discouragement, from Jim Jones’s media-blaming to what Scientology calls “black PR.” And of course, you’ve read Trump’s tweets.
The man in the photograph, Rama, gives me the creeps, and I find the use of the word “enlightenment” embarrassing. But I follow orders nonetheless. Because, up to this point anyway, the benefits of my involvement outweigh my desire to Google the hazards. Membership has essentially paused my active alcoholism (though I wouldn’t have used those words at the time), improved my GPA, and tripled my hourly wage. I won’t risk these gains by learning anything other than what I’m told about Rama, aka Dr. Frederick P. Lenz III. So I don’t know that, before becoming the fabulously wealthy leader of a prosperity Buddhism cult, Rama had gotten a PhD in American literature, and was an English professor at Stony Brook University. I don’t know that he built his life around language—just, as a creative writing student, I’m doing. I don’t consider the ways in which the cultish language established in his seminars, audio recordings, and books are shaping my speech, actions, and thoughts.
You Are an Ancient, Many-Faced Wrathful Deity
This is what my meditation teacher—also a Small Circle Jiujitsu blackbelt—tells me, three years later, as he throws me to the floor. He’s making an example out of me in front of the rest of the group. “You’re bent on destroying everyone else’s pure ascent to enlightenment,” he says, “and I’m going to knock your teeth out.”
A month later, I’m having a panic attack in heavy scuba gear at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. I am certain my teacher, seated on the ocean floor beside me, is going to kill me. Later that night, he tries to seduce me instead.
I relay this seduction attempt to my significant other, who finally agrees to flee across the country with me. We recognize that this is just one among many fraught sexual advances the teacher has made in the preceding months. And we discuss, too, how we are being asked to donate ever-increasing sums of both money and free labor to the group. Still, even as we leave it, we do not use the word “cult.”
But what is a cult? Montell writes that over the years, the word has become so sensationalized that experts no longer use it. The meaning is too broad, and inherently deprecatory. At the same time, she acknowledges that when we use the word cult, we generally understand its meaning, through context, whether we’re talking about an ethical community or a dangerous one. And again, she suggests the former can be distinguished from the latter based on the nuances of their rhetoric. The former “will be up-front about what they want from you, and what they expect from you in membership,” she explains. Meanwhile, the latter will use language to obscure sexual and financial exploitation and ends-justify-the-means behaviors. It will focus not on your empowerment but on the cult leader’s.
Montell says those who are most susceptible to cult rhetoric aren’t so much gullible as optimistic. They believe in, embrace, and want to work toward an idealistic cause. In my own experience, however, this optimism feels less like a facet of idealism than addiction. Whether it’s alcoholism, anorexia, or cult membership, I love the promise of a single solution to the overwhelming complexity of human life. Isn’t it alluring, to imagine that simply by drinking this, not eating that, or submitting to the group, we can escape pain? And isn’t wonderful when—in the beginning anyway—it works?
I wish Montell had explored the relationship between addiction and cults more thoroughly—specifically, by dedicating a section of her book to twelve-step programs. While she goes deep on CrossFit, she only mentions Alcoholics Anonymous in passing. As a cult survivor and an alcoholic in recovery, my relationship to AA—which is an organization teeming with unique language—is tentative, even as I credit its positive influence on my sobriety. Montell briefly reports on a newly sober friend using terms like “HALTing,” “catching a resentment,” “future-tripping,” and “first things first.” Montell writes, “it was changing my friend’s life for the better. But its conquest of her vocabulary was impossible to unhear.” She goes no further.
While I’m relatively sure I’ve located a safe community in AA, I still question my judgment. That I was once manipulated by a dangerous cult scares and embarrasses me. Montell says this is another negative effect of the stigma around the word. Shame prevents us from admitting to ourselves what’s happened—and from telling our stories. It has taken me two decades to write about my experience. And I credit Cultish with helping to lift this shame enough for me to do so—by connecting my cult membership with my love of language. Words traumatized me, but now they can heal me, too. “There is always a story,” Montell says. “As soon as you get your language back, you can tell it.”