I was mid-research into Sacred Medicine and a doctor I know said, “Hey, come to this secret meeting with a shaman from a remote tribe who is in town only for this week to share his sacred wisdom. Oh, and wear white. And bring your checkbook.” When I got there, a lot of beautiful young white people beautifully outfitted in flowing white angelic garments encircled a man of white colonizer descent who claims he was the first white person to be initiated into this Indigenous shamanic tradition. The “shaman” (I put this label in quotes because all the real shamans I met on my Sacred Medicine journey did not use this grandiose label) was dressed in traditional white clothes with rotten teeth. His two teenage children flanked him and both looked glazed and dissociated, like they were under a spell. I watched as the “shaman’s” followers, all of them idealistic, well-intentioned “Save the earth” Americans and Canadians who were following him all over the world in a rickety bus, sucked up to him while he acted like an asshole.
We, the new recruits, were ushered into the space where money was collected from us and handouts were passed around. The shaman then led us in ritual space to the memory of our birth and the hypnosis began. At the end of the day, people were invited to do private sessions- at a fee. I went to observe but didn’t want a private session. I only wanted to talk to the shaman for research purposes. One of my friends got conned into buying this $1000 amulet to protect her from the allegedly evil spirits that were out to get her. Someone else was convinced to donate a lot of money to “the cause” (saving the earth, of course.)
The next day, we were invited to make a pilgrimage to a site in nature that had apparently appeared to the shaman in a dream. We met the pretty white people in the rickety bus at the trailhead and followed the shaman’s lead. Every few hundred feet, he stopped and everyone was supposed to spin in circles. I imagined that if anyone else was watching up play follow the leader, we must have looked hilarious.
Things took a rocky turn when he started leading us through a patch of thick poison oak. There was no trail through the poison oak, only twisted thickets of poison. Yet he plunged through anyway and the pretty people followed. I did too, realizing that my white clothes were about to be torn to shreds. When we got where his inner GPS was apparently leading us, everyone dropped into a circle around the leader. The women began weaving. The men were holding these vessels and spinning a stick in them.
The next day, my housemate, who had joined us, was swollen shut from poison oak. I seem to have some sort of poison oak immunity, so I was fine, but my poor housemate could barely open her eyes and her legs were wet with weeping hives. Apparently, the shaman’s children were also swollen shut. His response? That the people who were suffering were bearing the burdens of the hundreds of Native Americans who had been massacred at that site where his inner GPS had led us. The swollen, itchy, nearly anaphylactic people were expiating the karma of the ones who committed the massacre.
You’d think by this point, some of the pretty white people would have woken up and gotten a little common sense, but it was obvious they were entranced, hook line sinker. I was love bombed, targeted as someone “special,” made to feel chosen, singled out. But I’ve studied cults and been hurt by cult leaders, so by this point in my Sacred Medicine journey, I had learned the hard lesson of discernment and could spot the recruitment right away. I had money, influence, power, a book I was writing, and an activist’s heart that cares about environmental issues, so I got the full court press, but I turned away from that scary scene, chose not to write about some useful things I learned from the shaman in my book, and chalked it up to a cautionary tale.
Many years prior to that, I had been invited by a famous man I admired to join a special group of select, by invitation only, mystics. We would all be gathering in an old mansion to work on honing our “siddhis,” the spiritual superpowers described by yogis. I was fascinated and curious. I felt flattered to have been invited. But it only took me about a month to realize how dangerous this crew of black magicians was. I bowed out and left unscathed, never looking back. I don’t know how the others fared.
Ten years of studying Sacred Medicine gave me a prime lesson in how to spot a narcissistic cult leader and the communities that are attracted to them. Sometimes cults are a cult of two, and sometimes they’re more obvious, like the shaman and the pretty white people or the mystic and the black magicians.
But the cultic leader is easy to spot once you know what you’re looking for:
- They tend to be charismatic and seductive with a penetrating, boundary violating gaze and leave you feeling like a spell has been cast on you.
- They promise miracles and exaggerate their claims.
- They are self-inflated, grandiose, deem themselves “special” and think they have the 411 direct to God.
- They often have a fascinating origin story that can’t be proven or disproven.
- They often claim to have been granted a miracle of their own, and having been granted the miracle, they now have the power to grant you one, for a fee, or for sex, or for something you might not wish to give away, like your power.
- They tend to be grandiose show-offs. If they do have mystical power (some do, some just fake it), they love to flaunt it to impress you and hook you and make you feel fascinated.
- You may find yourself feeling ungrounded, dizzy, and ecstatic as if you’ve fallen in love.
- They disempower you to empower themselves, feeding off you energetically.
- They are masterful at gaslighting and make you doubt yourself.
- They are very fragile if you challenge them and wobble under anything other than blind adoration and worship. Especially if you bring up science, try to prove their claims, counter them with evidence to refute what they say, or otherwise suggest that they are anything other than the God-like messiah they claim themselves to be, they turn on you.
- They are often extremely insightful and intuitive and use your traumatic wounding to hook your most burdened inner children and try to get those parts to bond to them so they can control you. Once those inner children bond to your own Divine Self instead, you’ll be less vulnerable.
- They are unwilling to humble themselves, apologize, take responsibility for their behaviors, or otherwise admit to their humanity if they wind up making a mistake. Instead, they’ll double down on how special and righteous they are, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
- They tend to mock science and critical thinking and cast aspersions on those who care about such things, as if they’re “better” than science.
- They try to separate you from your family and other loved ones who might question the cult leader and sow seeds of doubt in you. In order to achieve the 100% domination cult leaders require, they need to isolate you from the critically thinking, skeptical, concerned loved ones who might talk some sense into you. Any healthy leader will support and foster your other intimate relationships rather than force you to choose between the cult leader and your family/friends.
- They create for the cult follower an intense and /or unprecedented type of emotional experience, usually cathartic or touching into trauma in some way, that trauma bonds the recruit into the leader’s group.
- They preemptively arm the new recruit with the tools of how to fend off friends and family’s concerns, on the grounds that “ordinary people don’t understand what we’re doing here, and may try to talk you out of it. Don’t let them. We have everything you need right here.”
- They get a power hit off controlling cult followers with uniforms, dietary restrictions, weird sleep patterns, sexual prohibitions or requirements, or other patterns of domination.
- If you turn away from the cult, they ramp it up with persistent unwillingness to let you step away. The cult leader and often the followers as well will argue, cajole, attack, gaslight, and threaten you with dire predictions of all the catastrophic things that might happen to you if you don’t cave in and join the cult.
- They may claim to have access to secret knowledge directly downloaded by some special spiritual power and refer you to a sacred text that cannot be questioned in its ultimate authority.
- They may inflate themselves with some special moniker, like “John…of God” or “shaman” (a label never used by actual Indigenous shamans.)
Charismatic narcissists tend to single out the pretty people, or the wealthy people, or the powerful people, to seduce them with love bombing and make them feel in some way “chosen” or “special.” If you get chosen, they lay it on thick. They were your teacher in an Egyptian mystery school in a past life. Or your mother or father lifetime after lifetime. You have a soul contract together and something bad will happen if you don’t complete your soul task. The earth needs saving, or the mission needs to be fulfilled, or [fill in the blank way to hook you through your idealism, need to feel chosen, Mommy/Daddy wounds, etc].
Janja Lalich has spent her whole life studying and learning how to spot a cult and I recommend her work if you’re curious to learn more about how to protect yourself. I was lucky my own spiritual teacher taught me how to spot a cult and how to cult-proof my community over a decade ago (because she had been in a cult and wanted to spare me that pain.) But some are not so lucky. I still feel sad about those beautiful young people in flowing white. I wonder if some of them are getting sexually abused by their messiah figure. I worry for those glazed-eyed children who seem 100% dominated.
Sadly, there are so many unsavory characters in the world of Sacred Medicine, as evidenced by the new Netflix John of God documentary. So if we’re going to foray into that territory at all, we must do so with eyes wide open and healthy skepticism and discernment spotting the red flags of malignant narcissists right away. They are easy to spot, once you know what you’re looking for.
Try this checklist to find where you’re easily “hooked.” If you can spot your own temptations to get hooked, you can become “slippery” and just let the hooks slide right off you.
- Fascination. Notice where a part of you is curious, enthralled, and fascinated by a mysterious or intriguing character who might be claiming some kind of magic.
- Magical power or special knowledge. If anyone is trying to hook you with the promise that if you follow the leader, you too can gain some kind of mystical superpower or secret insider knowledge, walk the other way.
- Miraculous healing. If you’re desperate and sick and nothing else has worked, exaggerated claims of miraculous healings can be almost impossibly seductive. Any good healer will be humble enough to tell you that sometimes people have good outcomes; other times they don’t.
- Enlightenment. If you’re the spiritually ambitious type, the promise that someone will “wake you up” and gain you access to some special white sofa in the sky where you’ll never ever feel pain again can be an almost irresistible hook.
- Being the chosen one. Especially if you ever felt unspecial, unchosen, unloved or even neglected, discarded, disposable as a child, the love-bombing of specialness can be as addictive as heroin.
- Belonging as part of a family of other “chosen” or “special” people. If your own family was less than ideal, this can be a tremendously seductive hook. Most of us crave being part of a “tribe” where we feel we belong. If you read or watched the John Grisham novel The Firm, you know that “the family” you get lured into may not be quite what it seems. When I was given my first book deal by a famous spiritual publishing house, the love-bombing was intense. I was welcomed into “the family” with a powerful matriarch and patriarch leading the way. My own father had just died, so I was vulnerable, as were many of the other authors in that world. I wound up realizing that I don’t need my publisher to be my family. I’d rather work on my family issues in therapy and am happy to now have a very mature, responsible, professional, ethical publisher who doesn’t need to hook me through my traumatic wounding.
- Mission. Most cults revolve around some kind of utopian “save the world” theme. If you have disillusioned parts or idealistic parts, this can be incredibly intoxicating to think you could be part of saving the planet, saving the culture, saving the children, or whatever else might need saving.
- Abundance. Some cults are more monastic and money is underplayed (other than asking you to give up all of yours and contribute your inheritance and life savings to “the cause.”) But some, like multi-level marking cults, hook people with promises that you will “manifest” wealth or abundance and help others do the same.
As one reader here truth bombed, “If you feel SMALLER rather than bigger after being with your teacher/guru/healer, then they just stole your energy in the guise of helping you. If you walk away from a workshop or event feeling a deep almost sexual longing for the next one… they still have a piece of your energy. If you NEED your teacher to approve of you, like a parent… they’ve got a piece of your energy still.” Boom! This.
If you or anyone you know and love has been hooked in this way by a cultic leader, I’m terribly sorry for any pain you or your loved ones may have endured. I hope you don’t blame yourself or beat yourself up, and if you’re attacking yourself in any way, please open your heart to your vulnerable parts and forgive yourself. We all have our vulnerabilities and cult leaders know exactly how to hook us where we’re most tender and naive. It’s not your fault; it’s theirs. The cult leaders are the corrupt ones preying upon vulnerable trauma survivors and they are the ones who need to be stopped in their tracks so they can’t keep abusing people.
Yes, cult leaders are also trauma survivors, and all trauma deserves our compassion. But cult leaders must be held accountable for their abusive behaviors. The cult leaders are the ones who deserve our anger. They are the ones who, if they were healthy, would feel ashamed of what they’re doing. We need not bear their shame for them. Those who get seduced or conned by cultic leaders need to be gentle with themselves once they awaken from the trance. It’s not the cult follower’s fault, but it is their responsibility to do the autopsy on how they got hooked so they can be slippery next time. And it is their responsibility to hold themselves accountable for any abuse or harm they inflicted on family or loved ones while they were in the cult.
Abuses of power are rampant, not just in the spiritual world, but everywhere that compromised, corrupt people sell out to trample on others in order to make it to the top. We can make ourselves safer by learning what to look for, so we take our power back, disempower the cult leaders, and learn the discernment necessary to stay safe in an unregulated industry that commoditizes spirituality and makes vulnerable people easy prey.
What did I miss? What other traits can people look for to spot a narcissistic cult leader, influencer, or healer? What other hooks might make people vulnerable? What have you all learned from your own experience?
PS. Someone on Facebook asked me if I’ve met any trustworthy spiritual teachers or healers and what I might have learned from them. I said yes, that after some harrowing lessons in discernment, I met some real healers and spiritual leaders and gleaned the wisdom from these ethical teachers and boiled down everything I learned into my book Sacred Medicine: A Doctor’s Quest To Unravel The Mysteries of Healing. I also included a chapter about spiritual bypassing, another about spiritual discernment, and included a checklist of what to look for in a trustworthy healer. You can preorder Sacred Medicine here.
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