Scientific Meditations

Essays in the Tim Maroney Web Collection

The Book of Dzyan

Definition of the Sacred

Descent: A Meditation

Even If I Did Believe

Facts and Phallacies

The Freedom of Doubt

Healing The Spiritual Community

Hekate and the Satanic School

Introduction to Crowley

The Included Middle

A Letter to Close

Pagan History

Pentagram Ritual

The Problems of Syncretism

Tetragrammaton Mass

Theory of Divination

Why Crowley Doesn't Suck

Why I Study Magic

Healing the Spiritual Community

by Tim Maroney (1994)

Community is an increasingly popular ideal. For many people, spiritual communities provide healing, support and other vital needs. However, community has a dark side: it does not always heal, but hurts. The profusion of books and articles lauding community virtually ignore its negative effects. One recent volume brushes aside all concerns as "fears of intimacy and commitment" and "the illusion that humans are separate", magnanimously enjoining the reader to "forgive yourself if you have fallen into either of these illusions."[1]

The goal of this article is not to downplay the real benefits of community, but to fill in parts of the puzzle that are omitted by its advocates. Some common sources of problems will be discussed, then practical solutions will be proposed.

Negative Images of the Self

People seek spiritual escapes from a feeling of inner wrongness, unworthiness or confusion. As a result, low self esteem is common in spiritual communities. As Roy F. Baumeister observes:

Escaping the self is centrally important in spiritual exercise. Religious disciplines from all over the world differ radically from each other in fundamental doctrines, techniques, promised results, and theoretical context, but all tend to agree on the importance of shedding the self. We shall see this message repeated over and over: the self is a barrier to spiritual advancement.[2]

Spirituality is attractive to those who search for release from a negative self-image because it explicitly states the unworthiness of the self and offers the promise of a remedy.

A negative self-image can cause social problems by creating unbalanced cravings for approval, guidance, power, sexual validation, and so on. Sometimes it is a realistic engagement of personal problems, but it often lends itself to self-destructive attitudes and behavior.

People who do not like themselves often imagine that they are under attack, externalizing their internal struggles. For instance, such a person might hear an inquiry about their opinion on some subject as an accusation of ignorance. They imagine that other people view them as negatively as they view themselves. Because of their tendency to see attack everywhere, people with low self-esteem are also prone to jealousy and resentment. Another person's success or happiness may be seen as a backhanded slap. Well-meaning people can find themselves at the center of all sorts of conflicts in spiritual communities if they do not step lightly in this minefield of imaginary insults.

Inner attacks are also externalized in another way: "many people with low self-esteem are critical of everyone"[3]. People who dislike themselves also tend to have low opinions of others. Negative judgments of character are a common source of problems in spiritual groups.

One way to escape the self is to become someone else. By creating alternate personae, it is possible to withdraw from a painful self-consciousness. Baumeister documents this tactic in suicidal personalities and sexual submissives[4]. In religion, people answer to different names and adopt different styles of clothing to take them away from their outside selves. Members of magical communities often play fantasy role-playing games and participate in historical re-enactments. For some people, these activities are harmless diversions, while for others they act out a desire to escape.

People sometimes join a group because they feel themselves lacking in some quality and want the group to make up that lack. This can lead to a contradiction: the ideals of a spiritual community may be the opposite of the personalities of its members. A "compassion" group may be insensitive and judgmental; a "kinship" group may seem like a dysfunctional family; a "free love" group may be wracked by jealous discord; a "free-thinking" group may be doctrinally rigid; and so on. The group ideal is most attractive to the people who are least able to live up to it!

Two Kinds of Trust

Spiritual groups often praise trust as a fundamental virtue, but trust does not come easily to people. Deep trust consists of freedom from artifice, sham and pretense: an opening and unfolding of the inner self. Its ultimate form is enlightenment, where one exposes one's heart to the universe without shame or fear. All veils and illusions are dissolved, and all barriers are lowered. Even short of this great spiritual awakening, we may drop all the barriers that we are able to let go of in the presence of people we esteem - that too is deep trust.

Actors on the stage have a different kind of trust. They know that the other actors will behave a certain way, according to their agreed-upon roles. This is not deep trust, but comfortable distance and predictability. It is the knowledge that no barriers will be challenged. Playing a role can reduce inhibitions[5] and so it can be positive. To reveal themselves at all, people with low self esteem need to know that they will be judged favorably. To have confidence in others, one must have confidence in oneself; if our own feelings about ourselves are negative, we assume that others will feel the same. In a support group, everyone can be trusted to play a supportive role.

The trust of actors can lead over time to deep trust. People gradually lower their barriers through prolonged role-playing. By skirting around the periphery of another person for a while, one may see that the other is safe in some regard, and relax - not completely, but by a small, measured amount. Seeing that the first person lowered their barriers a little, the other may reciprocate; and so it goes. This slow, piecewise removal of character armor may play out over years.

Some people are impatient with this process, and shed their defenses before others are ready to see them naked. People jump headlong into deep trust for several reasons. They may see through pretense, so they are exasperated by artifice - they can't understand why people maintain their façades. People with low self esteem may find the effort of maintaining their rigid defenses exhausting, motivating them to spring at any chance to relax. Some people know the spiritual value of lowered barriers from personal mystical experience and expect the same in group workings.

Many conflicts in spiritual communities result from confusing these two kinds of trust. The esteem in which groups hold the principle of trust can create the impression that members are supposed to proceed directly to deep trust and skip the preliminary stages. However, they are actually supposed to act out a role which simulates deep trust. Failing to realize the unspoken boundaries of the game can lead to disaster! Even when someone is willing to trust others, it takes time for them to respond in kind. As Nietzsche wrote:

Thou wouldst wear no raiment before thy friend? It is in honour of thy friend that thou showest thyself to him as thou art? But he wishes thee to the devil on that account!

He who maketh no secret of himself shocketh: so much reason have ye to fear nakedness! Aye, if ye were gods, ye could then be ashamed to wear clothing![6]

Humans are role-playing animals. Most art involves some sort of artificiality, and any group project requires the adoption of roles. In an enlightened society, people would still act, but they would act consciously and playfully, without an intent to deceive others or themselves. In today's society, those who are skilled at role-playing are accepted, while those who wear their hearts on their sleeves are scorned. There may come a day when deep trust is the rule rather than the exception, but for now, it is precious and rare. Spreading it freely causes resentment, especially among people with low self esteem. The world would be better if more people opened their hearts, but anyone who expects openness to make them popular may be disappointed.

Judgments of Character

Initiatory groups and similar assemblies apply a model of spiritual progress in which the member is "brought to light" by successive degrees. In some cases the degrees are informal, while in others they are highly structured. In either case, those who have attained higher degree are responsible for judging the progress of those of lower degree, and admitting them to the next level when they are deemed ready. The focus is ostensibly on the spiritual progress of the initiate, but as Jean La Fontaine observes:

The transformation of individuals, by the ritual which transfers them from one social state to another, ... supports the position of those in authority, the officiants, whether these are secret-society officials or traditional leaders. The individuals are, to this extent, objects used in the ritual, rather than its central focus through which the ritual is to be explained. Initiation rituals cannot be understood simply as a means of changing the status of individuals.

Failure to recognize that initiation rituals are `for' those already initiated, as much as for the novices, ... has been a handicap in analysis.[7]

In spiritual communities, the process of judgment has as much to do with the judges as with the people they judge. The judges gain a feeling of power and superiority from their role. Whatever the legitimate function of judgment in the spiritual path, these rewards also create a motivation to judge, which can be satisfied as easily by a false judgment as a true one - perhaps more so, since a false judgment is a greater manifestation of power. Conversely, novices who seek guidance in order to submit, to compensate for low self esteem, or to vicariously wield power will be happy with misguided assessments of their character.

Psychotherapists are supposed to be disinterested: they are not in a position of power over, nor socially involved with, their clients, and this removes much of the potential for conflicts of interest. A similar ideal holds in jurisprudence: judges are expected to recuse themselves from cases in which they have a personal interest. Therapy and the courts sometimes fall short of this ideal, but spiritual communities constantly defy it. The people placed in judgment over the aspirant are often competing with them for social resources such as power, approval and sex.

The issue of judgment is further complicated by the use of questionable methods, such as telepathy, numerology and astrology[8]; chiding and moralistic concepts such as "worthiness" and "ignorance"; lack of psychological training and disdain for psychotherapy as a competitive belief system; the usual thirst for certainty among the religious; a compensatory desire to judge in those who have been judged themselves; and the quickness of people with low self esteem to form negative judgments. Given all these factors, it is not surprising that so many conflicts in spiritual groups involve wild accusations about others' personalities and motives.

Even outside religion, we often impute motives to others for self-interested reasons rather than in a sincere attempt to understand their psychology. Nietzsche expressed one mode of judgment succinctly:

What really are our reactions to the behaviour of someone in our presence? First of all, we see what there is in it for us - we regard it only from this point of view. We take the effect as the intention behind the behaviour - and finally we ascribe the harbouring of such intentions as a permanent quality of the person whose behavior we are observing and thenceforth call him, for instance, `a harmful person'. Threefold error! Threefold primeval blunder![9]

Politics provides an example. In any country, it is considered polite to gloss over the less admirable areas of national history. People who decline to participate in this selective blindness are accused of doing so for reasons of schadenfreude, taking pleasure in the pain of others. Yet the dissidents themselves feel that they are concerned with historical accuracy and compassion for the victims of policy. The researches of dissidents threaten the regard in which citizens prefer to hold their country, causing a painful feeling of shared guilt instead of the usual national pride - so the offended citizen concludes that the purpose of dissidence is to spoil their pleasure: that dissidents are driven by malice.

The same mode of judgment is common in spiritual groups. The consequences of people's actions are confused for their motivations. People who ask difficult questions about the group's belief system are assumed to be doing so, not out of real philosophical interest, but to undermine "the truth". People whose ideas or behavior seem to threaten goals for the group are not thought of as having different goals, but as saboteurs bent on destruction.

In order to communicate, we constantly construct models of the minds of those around us. Judgment is not bad in itself, but we should know that our judgments are often incorrect, and we should be skeptical of them. A good therapist is less certain about a client's mind after a year of therapy than a typical spiritual guide is after a month. The therapist's training has demonstrated the difficulty of psychological judgment, while the guide is powerfully motivated to judge.

Judgment of character in spiritual groups usually has more to do with a game of dominance and submission than with analysis of personality. The more self-knowledge an aspirant may have, the less accurate the facile judgments of the guides will seem. Disagreement is a sure recipe for exclusion.

The Functions of Belief

A persistent theme in the twentieth century has been the crisis of values. The subject appears in psychology, literary criticism, sociology, and philosophy time and again. We no longer accept the inherited values of our culture; they are impossible to square with modern understandings. We see customs as natural phenomena without intrinsic meaning rather than as guides for our lives. No general defining value system has emerged to remove the resulting feeling of anxiety.

Spiritual beliefs fill this gap by providing a context for meaning and feeling in our lives. Their certainty acts as a defense against insecurity. In group dynamics, the truth or falsehood of spiritual beliefs matters little: what is important is that they remove anxiety and promote conviction. Challenges to such beliefs may be viewed as malicious attempts to restore the previous state of anxiety and emptiness, provoking a defensive reaction.

The one-sidedly positive view of community discussed at the start of this article demonstrates another aspect of the process. People tend to be more concerned with the imagined results of words than with their accuracy. If one has decided to support a cause, then one becomes an advocate, brushing aside criticism and focusing on positive attributes. It's not that criticism is necessarily false, one thinks, but an open discussion of problems might hurt morale and discourage converts. This unrelenting boosterism makes it difficult to address real problems.

Not only do spiritual beliefs fill a void, they are often defenses against reality. Baumeister shows how escape from the self involves flights into irrationality and fantasy as a way of diverting the focus of consciousness from meaningful material.[10] The more bizarre the beliefs, the better they distract attention from an unpleasant complex of realistic, though perhaps inaccurate, meanings. Eric Hoffer notes this connection between faith and low self esteem:

Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.

The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for himself, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.[11]

When substitution motivates spiritual belief, defensive reactions against perceived challenges to the belief system may take extreme, irrational, even violent forms. Aside from such severe reactions, groups dull critical thinking by an automatic process known as "groupthink". The psychologist Irving L. Janis wrote that "Groupthink refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures."[12] Janis developed the idea of groupthink in reference to political fiascos such as the Bay of Pigs, but it applies equally well to spiritual communities. The process was summarized by Jeffrey S. Victor:

Groupthink can be seen to operate in religious groups, therapy groups, and even corporate bureaucracies, in which the need to maintain cooperative interaction between members creates a pressure to conform. These in turn suppress questioning, skepticism, and dispute about prevailing beliefs. The desire of participants to preserve friendly relationships among themselves inhibits their expressing points of view that deviate from informally accepted group norms. Participants who attempt to bring issues that might cause internal bickering and conflict are subtly chastised for their disloyalty, or they are ostracised. The process works upon individual perceptions of reality. Members who might privately consider some beliefs unacceptable begin to doubt their own thinking and change their beliefs to fit into the reality constructed by the group.[13]

Because of all these pressures, it may make little difference whether a spiritual community defines itself as open, tolerant, and non-dogmatic. The anxiety associated with an absence of defining beliefs, the position of advocacy, and the conformist pressures of groupthink act together to suppress questions about the central tenets of the group. The lack of a formalized system of dogma is no guarantee of pluralism. Informality can create the false impression that all of the members independently arrived at the same ideas, even though the ideas may be bizarre. This apparent voluntarism, the seeming like-mindedness of the membership, offers dissenters a choice: either accept the system, or realize that you don't belong here.

People decline to go along with formal and informal dogmas for a variety of reasons. Some reasons reflect well on dissenters (philosophical curiosity and fearlessness, the desire to repair problems) while some reflect badly (obnoxious nay-saying, acting out marytrdom scenarios) but the result is generally the same. People who don't go along with the unbalanced advocacy that is the hallmark of spiritual communities find themselves treated as threats.

Twelve Goals People Have in Groups

Comfort: To feel at ease, relaxed, secure: a "coming home" feeling.

Approval: To get approval from others; to be part of a support group.

Education: To acquire and improve skills and knowledge; to get training in methods and access to information.

Cooperation: To accomplish more than what a single person can do alone; to practice and get feedback.

Friendship: To make friends.

Sex: To find sexual partners.

Contact: To get physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual contact.

Drama: To get stimulation and excitement, even conflict and tension.

Giving: To share skills or expertise; to give time and energy to a cause.

Power: To achieve status, as opposed to mere acceptance. Many people want power, but are content with wielding it vicariously by identifying with their leaders.

Guidance: To get outside direction and guidance, as opposed to education. This often appears together with the desire for power: many devotees dream of assuming the guru's role someday!

Healing: To fix something that is wrong; to get salvation, initiation, or some other spiritual cure for a real or imaginary ailment.

In addition to these common goals, people often join groups to act out a scenario in which they take on a particular role which they enjoy, which flatters their self-image, or which satisfies some other need. Some typical roles are guru, chela, teacher, student, scholar, sage, maverick, priest(ess), judge, initiate, therapist, healer, oracle, soldier, warrior, activist, social manager, tortured artist, life of the party, and sacred prostitute.

Conflicts of Goals

Conflicts of goals are more common sources of strife than "personality conflicts". Even when two people rub each other the wrong way, they are likely to come to some kind of truce as long as they believe they share the same goals.

The possibilities for conflict of goals are immense. Consider the twelve goals identified above (see box, page [*]). There are cases in which any one of them could conflict with any other. For instance, one person's desire for approval could conflict with another's desire for education - the first would try to make the community a support group, the other a classroom.

Conflicts are especially likely when people actively disparage certain goals. Lone wolves may look down on the desire for approval; married people and celibates may scorn those who search for sex partners; and so on. In fact, all twelve goals are natural human drives, and none deserves to be treated with contempt. Even the desire for power may be a manifestation of the desire for cooperation - perhaps someone who truly has vision should seek a leadership role. Failure to respect others' goals is part of the general problem of facile judgment, already discussed.

Some goals foster conflict by themselves. There is no drama without conflict, and the desire for drama can create melodrama. If struggle can be focused against obstacles such as the lack of funds or the difficulty of projects, then the desire for drama may form a positive part of a group, but if it is directed into the social sphere it is likely to cause problems.

Sex can be a very positive part of human life, but when several people fish in the same sea of potential partners, jealous conflicts are inevitable.

Power is especially problematic. This goal may be gratified by the accomplishment of significant works, but again, it is often abused when turned toward the group itself. In fact, the ability to abuse power is instinctively considered its true measure. If one cannot abuse power, one does not really have it - one merely has the same ability to influence consensus that everyone else has. For this reason, people often test their power by wielding it in cruel and inconsiderate ways.

Healing from Conflicts

Having understood some of the reasons for conflicts in spiritual communities, we can proceed to the issue of healing. Here are some strategies to deal with the painful memories and emotions that follow conflicts in a group.

1: Getting Past Blame

When problems become serious, there is plenty of blame to go around. Each side may form a melodramatic and exaggerated version of events, portraying their opponents as demons or idiots. Conversely, people may indulge in self-recrimination, asking themselves, "Why didn't I see this happening? How could I have been so stupid?" As Nietzsche observed:

Guilt is always sought wherever there is failure; for failure brings with it a depression of spirits against which the sole remedy is instinctively applied: a new excitation of the feeling of power - and this is to be discovered in the condemnation of the `guilty'.... To condemn oneself can also be a means of restoring the feeling of strength after a defeat.[14]

Blame is a common defense mechanism. To deal with a difficult memory, a person substitutes a kind of morality play. Defensive stories often seize on a single event as the sole cause of every problem and replace characters with caricatures. It is easy to see people not as the deep and contradictory processes they are, but as heroes and villains.

Ideas of blame are not necessarily false, but they get in the way of understanding the complex and ambiguous processes behind events. If physicists had thought electrons were evil, we never would have learned how atoms work. Psychology only came into its own after the idea of "sin" had fallen into disfavor among the educated.

Some situations seem to demand a finding of fault. For instance, if someone was thrown out of a group by the leader after the leader's lover flirted with them, it's hard for the person who was expelled to suspend judgment of the leader. If someone was removed after claiming to be the reincarnation of a prophet, others are likely to view that person with contempt. The appearance of jealousy, megalomania or other unsavory feelings is bound to create a feeling of blame, but a rush to judgment may oversimplify the situation. Other factors may have been just as important.

The inclination to think of mental problems as shameful can be an obstacle to healing. When we tell someone that they're crazy, we're insulting them, not encouraging them to get help. In the mythical land of Erewhon[15], a case of the sniffles was a guilty secret and a sin, but people would casually mention their mental treatment for shoplifting. If we considered a neurosis as blameless as a head cold, it might be easier to deal with.

Unfortunately, realizing we have a problem sometimes makes it worse, because we blame ourselves for it. We often try to control problematic thoughts by stigmatizing them: "I mustn't think that; there's something wrong with me if I think that!" This defense is known as repression. Its result, according to Freud[16], is to drive the thought into the unconscious mind, where it becomes stronger. Soon it will be bubbling up in twisted forms everywhere, together with its associated guilt.

A process of calm withdrawal from reproach is more effective. Learn to recognize blame models, but don't punish yourself for them; just watch them and let them go. Realize that emotions such as jealousy, self-glorification, and malice are natural processes, no more shameful than erosion or hunger. They are phenomena in people's minds, including yours and mine.

2: Sublimating Negative Emotion

After withdrawal from a troubled group situation, an outpouring of frustration and rage can create depression or obsession. One alternative is to sublimate this energy into new projects. Creation and destruction are two faces of one coin: the destruction of one situation can form the basis for a new and better one, while the creation of a new condition invariably destroys an old state of affairs.

When one's mind is in an obsessive state, turning it towards a different but emotionally similar object causes the obsession to fix on the new object. Anger can fuel poetry, art, music, construction, bodybuilding - any number of creative endeavors. Sorrow is naturally related to compassion; after a disaster, one's own sadness can become sympathy for the pain of everyone involved, even those on the other side of the fence, and so result in a broader and less blameful understanding. Disappointment can be frustrating, but it also underscores and illuminates one's own fuzzy aspirations: the failure of a group situation may leave one more aware of what one actually wants from groups.

3: Knowing Yourself

Most people do not know consciously what they want from groups. Unfortunately, what you don't know can hurt you. Before plunging into a group with a vague idea that it will solve your problems and assuage your loneliness, it would be wise to review the goals people have in groups and work out how you feel about each of them.

This is not easy, because we often deny that we desire exactly those things that we want most. There really is no substitute for the advice of a trained counselor. Simply talking out deeply held feelings with a therapist invariably leads to realizations which one would never have had in isolation. Understanding one's own drives and assumptions can only help the spiritual aspirant, and modern psychotherapy is more effective at providing this kind of self-knowledge than are most spiritual disciplines. The late Israel Regardie described himself as "adamant ... that to obtain the greatest benefit from Magic which is as it were a post-graduate study there should be some undergraduate work in a personal therapy. The dividends are enormous."[17]

Self-knowledge is good in itself, but it also has effects on behavior. Many defense mechanisms are unconscious, and uncovering their roots often inclines one to act differently in the future. An unconscious motive can only rule a person as long as it remains hidden or denied. Goals are sometimes compensatory: for instance, the desire to find sexual partners may have less to do with libido than with a desire for validation that compensates for low self esteem. Simply learning this may reduce the compulsive strength of the drive and lead to more realistic goals.

In some cases, this reduction of drive strength due to self-knowledge may leave one with little desire to participate in groups. If one's social motivations are largely compensatory, self-knowledge might dry them up to the point where one becomes self-complete and self-content: a hermit. If this really is your natual inclination, enjoy the freedom that comes with solitude! However, choosing isolation can also be a defense mechanism against the natural desire for community.


Armed with a knowledge of group dynamics, and the ability to confront sources of trouble, groups can re-examine and rework themselves to be healthier and more healing. If your community has had problems, don't blame it all on the personality failings of people who have departed. Review the comments above on getting past blame, and consider some of these ways to make your community stronger.

1: Conscious Games

Accept certain kinds of social interaction as games. Roles can be set out in advance and performed for a limited duration. To formalize a support group, for instance, support might begin when a bell was rung; no critical comments would be allowed until the bell was rung again.

In support groups, people often attack others who are not present. Criticizing anyone who's there is against the rules, but everyone else is fair game. It's fine to talk about feeling bad because so-and-so did something awful, but no one is allowed to ask skeptically, "Hold on: how do we know you're telling the truth? Are we being fair to so-and-so?" Members who were unfortunate enough to miss a meeting may find themselves abruptly made unwelcome. Because the participants do not know they are playing a game, the judgments they form can persist after the game is over and cause conflicts. By making the rules explicit, people are less likely to mistake artificial role-playing judgments for real-life decisions.

2: Establishing Process

Groups of any kind are most efficient when people have well-defined roles to play. The ideal of "process" - drawing up procedures for decision-making ahead of time and following them scrupulously - is as useful in spiritual communities as in business. The less process there is in any group endeavor, the more likely conflicts become. Groups run in an anarchistic manner, with no formal process and no central authority, tend to be wracked by vendettas, slander, and petty politics rather than filled with deep trust. They are easily manipulated by fast-talking actors who know how to radiate sincerity and appeal to personal goals. Formal process could guarantee some thoughtful review of these actors' exciting presentations before the group commits to them.

One of the most important processes is the procedure for conflict resolution. Justice is not a natural result of unconscious social dynamics; arriving at good decisions in an atmosphere of emotional conflict requires work. Shaffer and Anundsen present a practical procedure in their book[18]. Conflict resolution depends on re-establishing the commitment of all parties to the goals they share, and removing the feeling that those goals are threatened. If that can't be accomplished, then the conflict will probably result in lasting divisions.

Perfect people might not need to create any formal process, but people in the real world benefit from humane and consensual structures within which they are free to play the roles they have chosen. Within a structured (but not iron-fisted) approach, there is ample opportunity for deep trust to develop between particular individuals.

3: De-Emphasizing Judgment of Character

As explained above, negative judgment of character is one of the most persistent sources of conflicts in spiritual groups. By shifting the model of spiritual progress from a test-based to a self-paced approach, some of the pressures that encourage negative judgments can be reduced. In this model, individuals have the responsibility to decide for themselves whether they have internalized the symbols and formulae of an initiation, or achieved results from a practice, but they are free to ask others for their help in coming to this decision. It may take time for initiations and practices to have an effect, but time limits can be applied impersonally. The teachers become resources for the students rather than the scales on which their souls are weighed.

Initiations can be refocused away from derogatory models of the old self. Severing candidates from their old status is a necessary part of any initiation, under the van Gennep model accepted by anthropologists[19], but this severing does not have to be a moralistic condemnation; it can simply mark the passage. Exaggerated insults screen out candidates who don't suffer from low self esteem and inflate the egos of those already initiated. For instance, consider the "formula of the neophyte" of Freemasonry and the Golden Dawn, as accurately described by Aleister Crowley:

This formula has for its "first matter" the ordinary man entirely ignorant of everything and incapable of anything. He is therefore represented as blindfolded and bound.... It will be seen that the effect of this whole ceremony is to endow a thing inert and impotent with balanced motion in a given direction.... [T]he first matter of the work... is so muddled that many operations are required to unify it.[20]

It is worth noting that this comes from a tradition, Thelema, which claims to be free of the "Sin-Complex"! The same deprecating assumptions are present in many other traditions. If groups instead performed their initiations in a way that respected both the old and the new status while drawing a clear boundary between them, they might find that over time their memberships would gain self-esteem and lose their thirst for superficial condemnation.

One objection to self-paced instruction is that the mystic path is a dangerous one, and aspirants left to their own pace would find themselves driven mad by premature revelation. However, if this were so, the explosive growth of mystical books open to everyone during this century would have stocked the asylums with casualties. In fact, according to my friends who have worked in the mental health system, it is very difficult to find anyone who was driven mad by a mystical path. When I have learned of magicians who went insane, even casual investigation has revealed non-magical reasons: for instance, they were diagnosed as schizophrenic before they began to practice, or they became amphetamine addicts. People generally have little problem defending themselves against disturbing spiritual insights - ordinary defense mechanisms are quite effective in blocking out spiritual experience. It takes work to open oneself to such things, and the doors readily slam shut, as every backslider can attest.

4: Applying Therapeutic Resources

As mentioned above, Israel Regardie urged every spiritual aspirant to first get psychotherapy. If a year or two of regular therapy were a condition of membership in spiritual groups, they might find themselves less troubled than they are today.

For people in religious groups, an outside counselor who is free from conflicts of interest is invaluable. Because the higher-ups are themselves involved with the social functioning and belief system of the group, it is dangerous to be entirely frank with them, and most people have more sense than to try.

One possibility that makes good economic sense is to sponsor professional group treatment as part of the community. The objection could be raised that spiritual groups serve many of the same purposes as therapy groups. However, they do so in a way that is fraught with defensiveness, conflicts of interest, and lack of empiricism. It is instructive to contrast Eric Berne's forthright and self-critical discussion of the pitfalls of group treatment[21] with Shaffer and Anundsen's cheerleading for community. Therapists have long cultivated research into the problems of their methods, while communities treat such inquiries as threats.

5: Separating Activities by Goal

Consider the fact that people use Christian churches to find sexual partners. This appears hypocritical, given the disdain for sexuality that is part of the Christian tradition. Yet churches that fail to provide an outlet for this natural urge may find their repression having the opposite effect, turning their holiest ceremonies into virtual singles bars. Rather than engaging in a destructive process of denial, most churches sponsor social gatherings as an outlet for this drive and others.

More generally, the potential for conflict of goals may be reduced by separating activities according to goal. People who are interested in a spiritual community for educational reasons do not necessarily want to endure an hour of social chatter to get an hour of instruction every week, for example. The goals of contact and approval can be separated from the goals of education and guidance; this will enable the group to serve more people, rather than driving away people with more limited goals. A healthy group should satisfy most of the goals people have for communities, but it should not require people to participate in activities that are of little or no interest to them. Otherwise, they are bound to become frustrated, perhaps even to divorce themselves from the community altogether.

6: Widening the Scope of Belief

Spiritual communities in the West give lip service to freedom of belief, but this usually only means that choices are presented in a few clearly identified areas. For instance, some groups grant latitude on the afterlife, but are adamant about the accuracy of astrology and the extrapsychological reality of spell effects.

True liberalization is difficult. Even people who do not suffer from low self esteem often confuse disagreement with insult, and introducing flexibility and ambiguity into a group's belief system undercuts the goals of guidance and power. It is important to recognize that a declaration of liberty does not create freedom of thought: informal required beliefs can be harder to address than formal dogmas. Activities are necessary.

Burning your holy book is unlikely to help; a ritualized disavowal acts as a safety valve, much like the Christian Feast of Fools[22], and strengthens the reigning beliefs. Instead, participate in interfaith dialogue. Reward challenging perspectives by publishing them and discussing them in a collegial way. Sponsor friendly debates between opposing points of view, and list pros and cons of central tenets. Most of all, encourage individuals to accept disagreement and rely less on certainty as part of their spiritual growth.


People hurt by spiritual communities may find themselves abruptly friendless and isolated. An improved understanding of the factors that predispose groups towards conflicts and problems may assuage their pain. Catastrophe can be a spur to gain insight. And of course, more self-aware communities are less likely to accidentally hurt their members. If individuals and groups can transcend the defensiveness that results from blameful and moralistic approaches to group dynamics, they will find themselves better able to reap the rewards of community, and even to derive benefits from problems and failures.


[1] Carolyn R. Shaffer & Kristin Anundsen, Creating Community Anywhere (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigee, 1993), pp. 29-30.

[2] Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D., Escaping the Self (New York: Basic Books, 1991), pg. 177.

[3] Ibid., pg. 95.

[4] Ibid., pp. 108, 127.

[5] Ibid., pp. 71-3.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche (Thomas Common, tr.), Thus Spake Zarathustra (New York: Modern Library, undated), pg. 58. Originally published in German in 1883-5.

[7] Jean La Fontaine, Initiation (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1985), pg. 104.

[8] Ted Schultz, "Scientific Tests of Astrology", Gnosis, No. 29. Fall 1993, pp. 6-7.

[9] Friedrich Nietzsche (R. J. Hollingdale, tr.), Daybreak (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), II:102. Originally published in German in 1881.

[10] Baumeister, op. cit., pp. 76-80 etc.

[11] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (New York: Time Inc., 1963), pg. 14. Originally published in 1951.

[12] Irving L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972), pg. 9.

[13] Jeffrey S. Victor, "Satanic Cult `Survivor' Stories", Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 15, No 3, Spring 1991, pp. 276-7.

[14] Nietzsche, Daybreak, I:140.

[15] Samuel Butler, Erewhon; or, Over the Range (London: Trubner, 1872).

[16] Dr. A. A. Brill, ed., The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud (New York: Modern Library, 1938), "The Interpretation of Dreams", pg. 288.

[17] Israel Regardie, The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic (Phoenix, Arizona: Falcon Press, 1984), pg. 1.

[18] Shaffer and Anundsen, op. cit., pp. 298-9.

[19] Jean La Fontaine, op. cit., pp. 24 etc.; Joseph L. Henderson, Thresholds of Initiation (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1979), pp. 9 etc.; Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation (New York: Harper Colophon, 1975), pp. x (note) etc.

[20] Aleister Crowley, Magick in Theory and Practice (New York: Castle Books, undated), p. 39. Originally published in Paris in 1929.

[21] Eric Berne, M.D., Principles of Group Treatment (New York: Grove Press, 1966).

[22] Baumeister, op. cit., pp. 208-9.