Shame and “Coming Out” of a Cult

The following article is written primarily for a specific audience: ex-members of the Sri Nityananda Ashram cult in Mt Eliza (on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia). It may also appeal to a broader audience, in particular, ex-members of other high control groups as well as members of the general public who are interested in cults and the psychological mechanisms of cultism.

In the last few years there has been a growing popular interest in the ways that avoidance of shame perpetuates abusive dynamics. I was originally introduced to these ideas reading Brene Brown, and more recently by reading the LGBTQ+ classic, “The Velvet Rage” by Alan Downs. This book was relevant to my own experience of “growing up gay in a straight world” and the ways gay men internalise shame about their authentic self which emerges from not belonging and feeling like there’s something intrinsically wrong with being gay (due to their upbringing). This shame consequently expresses itself in toxic ways until, according to Downs, we recognise it and begin to grow through it. It got me thinking about the shame associated with “coming out” of a destructive cult and feeling ashamed for “being so stupid” or for participating in “institutional abuse” and “deceptive recruitment”.

Some ex-members of the Mt Eliza Ashram do not see it as a cult, and perhaps this is because of the shame that can accompany such a label. In truth, any specific label can easily fail to capture the nuances of actual experience since life is multidimensional, and since the spiritual journey is unique to each of us. My favouring of the cultic label is due to my recognition that the Sri Nityananda Ashram met all the markers of a destructive cult in my research on cults. I also gained clarity that for me, such a label drew a clear line in the sand that made ambiguity dangerous when it came to any kind of openness to the manipulative grasp of members under the influence of Russell Kruckman who is known as Swami Shankarananda inside his cult. Kruckman legally changed his name to Swami Shankarananda decades ago, but I believe the Swami title is inappropriate in Kruckman’s case as it refers to a humble renunciate (and celebate) and Kruckman is well known for his abusive and narcissistic behaviour as a cult leader and sexual predator. I refer to Swami Shankarananda as Kruckman in this article for these reasons.

I was recently quoted in a news article about the ashram, stating that any man who brings their female partner there can expect that their partner will cheat on them. I received some constructive feedback about this wording and was initially horrified to realise that my use of the word “cheating” could be seen as not only inaccurate, but was also extremely hurtful in the abusive context that this betrayal of relational sanctity and trust occurs within. I am remorseful about my use of this word and have had it removed by the reporter. Initially, despite my remorse, I noticed that my own shame was triggered upon receiving the critical feedback. I was angry about being misunderstood and I barked at an old friend who left the ashram years ago (and who was one of the people that gave me this critical feedback): sharing my sense of isolation about the absence of others who have spoken out at this stage. I entered a shame spiral (which my barking was representative of), and without further reflection, such a spiral can easily become out of control… isolating, inciting anger, and causing hurt. To all of those men and women who were upset or injured by my comment in that article, I deeply apologise.

People who leave a destructive cult are faced with enormous potential for shame spirals. A shame spiral is defined here as “acting out” in defensiveness, anger, judgement and retaliation in order to avoid our own shame. Leaving a cult naturally creates the possibility of shame: We don’t want to be seen as stupid. We don’t want to be associated with systemic abuse. We don’t want to be seen as “unspiritual” or “haters” which is how Kruckman loves to paint us. Inside the walls of the ashram, those that speak out against it are painted in the worst possible ways. Kruckman will do anything he can to dissolve our credibility, to character bomb us, and to turn his cult following against us. By deflecting his loyal members attentions to the perceived hatred and attack that is coming from outside, Kruckman avoids focussing negative attention on himself. This is one element of gaslighting, which is the main technique of psychological abuse that I personally experienced and observed on a daily basis whilst in the ashram community. Gaslighting makes you feel crazy. You cannot say anything negative about the ashram or Kruckman and if you do, the entire ashram community will be used against you under the spider web like influences of Kruckman. This is my personal experience and observations.

When we look at profiles of charismatic cult leaders, we find a common thread of narcissistic personality traits. A narcissist perpetually lies, manipulates and abuses in their everyday interactions. For a narcissist, winning is the game. They seek the adoration of others, and in the process of seeking this undying affection, they will throw anyone under the bus that challenges their “reality tunnel” in order to preserve their own delusion of grandiosity. A spiritual leader with a narcissistic personality conveys qualities that can be easily misconstrued as enlightenment. They have a charm and capacity to make you feel incredibly special. When a narcissist stares into your eyes, they tend to blink less, and to look right through you. They convey a level of certainty that is often sought after by the “seeker” who by the nature of being on a quest for enlightenment, is in search of that kind of faith or certainty that is felt around the narcissistic cult leader.

The psychological theories that have been developing around narcissistic personality disorder include a look at shame. The gist of this understanding is that a narcissist actually has an extremely fragile sense of self and has become phobic of any experience of shame. In order to uphold their fragile delusion of grandiosity, the narcissist will deflect all negative criticisms of themselves onto others and will avoid any responsibility or fallibility. To admit to being imperfect is to be destroyed by their own worst fears at the heart of their shame phobia. People around a narcissist suffer at the externalisation of this shame, taking it on as their own need to become better whilst continuing to uphold the narcissists delusion in a reciprocal dynamic that helps no one.

Shame is one of the most uncomfortable emotions and for me, shame was what lead me back into the ashram after leaving the first time (I later left again). I could not handle the shame of accepting I had been in a cult, and in my mind at that time, I felt that the cultic label invalidated my spiritual experiences and made those years completely wasted. I couldn’t cope with this at the time. When I returned to the ashram back then, I felt immediate relief. I entered into the bubble of spiritual discourse and there was bliss which followed. In the sadhana narrative, everything is a play of consciousness, and the sociological web of certainty that comes with ashram life gave me a direct experience of divinity rather than a “disgruntled psychological mindset that undermined all the magic”.

My way out again was through a complex array of processes. I had to make an effort to understand my own experiences whilst navigating the fragile terrain of my own shame. Speaking openly about my involvement in a cult was like “coming out” all over again. Whilst in the grips of a cult, members learn to mislead non-members about the level of control that the leader has. Cult members become well versed in “double speak” where they act to perpetually uphold the best possible narrative about their involvement in the cult, and to deny any of the negative down sides or at best, to underplay them. “Coming out” about my cult involvement meant consciously making a decision to be vulnerable. I had to own that I had been in a cult. In this process of ownership and openness, I over shared, I went through periods of feeling totally victimised and angry, and I went through long periods of having lost any kind of faith in the divine. Yet, there was something liberating in this whole unfolding. A bit like when I came out as gay, coming out as an ex-member of a destructive cult brought the feeling of relief. It provided a clean disconnection from the shackles of Kruckmans’s abusive powers. It helped me to reconnect with a sense of community outside the boundary of the cultic bubble and to find a common language that gave meaning to my experience in all of its complex nuances. It positioned me on the other side of the divide between the cult group and the rest of society so that I could find my place again in society at large.

How do we explain the “experience of shakti” that happened for most of us in the folds of the ashram and in the presence of Kruckmen who we once worshipped as Swami Shankarananda the guru? I have found many experiences helpful in making sense of this eery phenomenon of an abusive (seemingly evil) person being capable of fooling so many people through mystical manipulation. One set of experiences happened for me during my hypnosis training: I was in the training room and on many occasions, I experienced states of consciousness that I associated with Ganeshpuri (our holy place of pilgrimage) and with Guru’s Grace. I learned experientially about the power of anchors or associations that can illicit peak states. I learned the nuances of state elicitation and came to recognise the incredible amount of hypnotic language patterns and practices that were utilised in everyday ashram life. For me, mystical experiences were my hook to a magical association with Kruckman as the guru. My training gradually peeled these associations away as I came to be able to deconstruct them and to re-create them on my own without the sham guru’s “blessings”.

Another means of my escape from the grips of Kruckman’s mystical manipulation was in directly studying cultic phenomenon. I spent two years reading every book and watching every show that I could find on the subject of cults (on YouTube, Netflix, Stan and so on). During this period, I attended a retreat that was facilitated by CIFS (Cult Information Family Support) in Brisbane. On this retreat, I met ex-members from the Moonies, from WAKO, and from a number of less well-known cultic groups from all around Australia. There are literally thousands of cults in Australia, and the more I realised how common cultic dynamics are, the more I came to see my experience as a very human problem that easily occurs in times of displacement, and when the right circumstances present themselves for deceptive recruitment. Hearing people’s stories in person, in books and on camera contributed to an emergent recognition about how similar all of our experiences were. Mystical manipulation was part of a common cultic thread. People have these “mystical experiences” that play a distinct role in conversion in every cultic group I learned about. The systemic abuse, the narcissistic personality type of the cult leaders, and the tool kit of gaslighting and exploitation in the name of transcendence were popular cultic meems. I wanted to know how these mystical experiences happened. Fortunately, I had experienced them in my hypnosis training room, but still, I sought further elucidation as part of my own personal growth and integration.

I came to recognise that faith is a powerful emotion which adds that special ingredient to a hypnotic cultic system. Group faith, shared rituals, connection to “deep secrets” and “elitist identification” under the banner of group identity and the disciple’s mindset, all guard against shame. A displaced member of mainstream society (even if this displacement is temporary whilst under the grip of depression, a breakup, a recent move etc) is immediately uplifted to an elite status of connection with the Godhead when mystical manipulation begins to emerge inside a cult. Suddenly, you are having the experience of connection on a transcendent level, as well as association with others who are sharing this divine “truth”. The pain associated with previously held shame, with isolation, and with existential crisis, is pushed aside and replaced by euphoria. And like a drug addiction, the avoidance of the pain of leaving a cult — which entails a range of unpleasant experiences, most notably shame and isolation — push the cult member to prioritise their “faith in mystical experiences” over critical thinking.

I am convinced that until we face shame in the face and recognise its destructive influence in our journey into the ashram and the entrapment that ensued, that we miss a great possibility for transformation of this shadow in our psyches. I am also convinced that those people in the ashram today, whilst rejecting the shame associated with their loyalty to the abusive dynamics they are participating in, will continue to defend their position. By defending their position against a perceived threat from outside criticism, they strengthen their faith and fail to disentangle themselves from the mystical manipulation that keeps them subservient to a system of narcissistic abuses against their integrated and autonomous self.

Someone who has inspired me greatly in my research on cults is Professor Phillip Zimbardo, who has contributed some fantastic work that he calls The Heroic Imagination Project. Zimbardo’s research into “how good people do evil things” includes the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. Depressed by what he found in his research, he sought to find a point of optimism, and he did this by exploring the psychology of “heroes” who despite systemic pressures, were able to challenge authority, to stand up for the shunned and shamed, and to hold onto their own humanity when the rest of their environment had become toxic. What he found was that one of the key components of the heroic imagination was the presence of a growth mindset. The term growth mindset was coined by Professor Carol Dweck and refers to a focus on “effort” and “process” rather than on product and end results. I believe that when we apply this “process orientation” to coming out of a cult, and to sharing about our experiences, we pave the way to transforming our shame, and to helping each other to grow through what was a truly traumatic set of abuses on our integral self. We will inevitably make mistakes in the process of stepping out of our comfort zones and growing.

For all of those people who have not yet told their story, or who have been caught in the spirals of shame due to their involvement in a destructive cult, I share my story. Together, we have wisdom to share about how easily well-intentioned individuals with strong ideals and positive aspirations can be coerced into toxic dynamics of systemic abuse. Together, we offer hope for others who are spellbound into subjugation: that there is spirituality and freedom, joy and transcendence, much greater that a narcissistic cult leader can ever provide. As we “come out” and share our vulnerability, we each pave a way forward for others to do the same. We help to protect innocent people in the community from being deceptively recruited into a destructive cult, and we take hold of our true power which we once felt in the ashram but were deceived to believe was only the “guru’s blessing” and not our own inner potency.

When I moved into the ashram many years ago, I moved from my head to my heart. I learned to “follow the good feeling” and to be vulnerable enough to “surrender” (at least in moments of transcendence). In my journey out of the ashram, I had to re-engage my critical thinking, to become more of an “ego” for a time, and to traverse uncomfortable inner terrains of despair, isolation and shame. I can honestly say that this process of “coming out” of the ashram was part of my continuing spiritual journey. Rather than spiritually bypassing discomfort, sitting with shame has provided me with food for transformation of my shadow self.

Coming out of a cult has enabled me to deconstruct the child-like innocence of my old faith in a sham guru, into a newfound faith in my own humanity and the potency of the human experience… all of the magic included. Being free of Kruckmans narcissistic abuse of my authentic spiritual desire to grow, has enabled me to move past the glass ceiling that exists inside the tentacles of Kruckmans toxic manipulation and self-serving agendas. In our freedom and our vulnerability, I believe we discover worlds of possibility and a powerful entry into states of wonder and connection. Free of cultic manipulations, we can discover a transcendent sense of reality that includes divergent perspectives, unique individualism, and a humility of “not-knowing” which is full of mystery.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

BOOKS:

“Combating Cult Mind Control” and “Freedom of Mind” — by Stephen Hassan (you will also find information about Robert Jay Lifton’s 8 Criteria for thought reform here)

“Cults Inside Out” — by Rick Alan Ross

“Opening Minds” — by Jon Atack

“Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation” — Daniel Shaw

“Take Back Your Life” and “Bounded Choice” — Janja Lalich

“Love, Brainwashing and Terror” — Alexandra Stein.

“Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” — Carol S.Dweck

“Rising Strong” — Brene Brown

“The Velvet Rage” — Alan Downs

YOUTUBE:

What is a cult and how does it work: https://youtu.be/8bRBFhMEQFk

Leaving a cult: https://youtu.be/UO0vPYd9Txw

Asch conformity experiment: https://youtu.be/NyDDyT1lDhA

Stanford prison experiment: https://youtu.be/xPO6BrFTsWM

Milgrim obedience to authority experiment: https://youtu.be/mOUEC5YXV8U

Derren Brown mystical manipulation, converting atheists: https://youtu.be/W-i_9DOCsEY

DOCUMENTARIES:

Holy Hell (Netflix)

Wild Wild Country (Netflix)

Kumare — the true story of a false prophet (can buy or rent through YouTube)

Seduced — Inside the Nexivm Cult (Stan)

How I Created a Cult (currently unavailable). There is an excerpt from it here… https://youtu.be/X3ess8txBX0 (Brilliant documentary series that I hope will become available again!)

WEBSITES:

https://www.heroicimagination.org/

https://freedomofmind.com/ See here: https://freedomofmind.com/robert-jay-liftons-eight-criteria-of-thought-reform-brainwashing-mind-control/ if you would like to explore Lifton’s Eight Criteria for Mind Control

www.openmindsfoundation.org

https://www.verywellmind.com/is-someone-gaslighting-you-4147470

PODCASTS:

IndoctriNATION — Rachel Bernstein

Sensibly Speaking — Chris Shelton

ORGANISATIONS:

CIFS: Cult Information and Family Support, http://www.cifs.org.au/

ICSA: International Cultic Studies Association, https://www.icsahome.com/

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