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Letter to a Former Member

ICSA e-Newsletter, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2005

Letter to a Former Member of a Meditation Group

The following is adapted from a letter Dr. Langone wrote to a former member of a meditation group, who was reconnecting himself to Christianity. Dr. Langone worked with the former member and his family and wrote the letter in lieu of a formal report, which the family had requested. Details have been changed to protect confidentiality. The letter raises a number of issues that are relevant to many former members of cultic groups, regardless of whether or not they practiced forms of meditation.


Your mother asked me to give her a report on our consultation time together. Because I do not want you to feel that I am withholding information from you, I am writing this report in the form of a letter to you, with a copy to your mother. Please recognize that I provide my views with a deep appreciation for the complexities and subtleties of your mind, soul, and experiences. Therefore, I ask that you and your family treat this letter as a collection of ideas to think about and talk about among yourselves, not as a set of scripture-like statements from an "expert." You are the only expert on you. I ask only that you consider carefully and not hastily reject what I offer here. Reflect upon my thoughts, call me if you wish to ask questions, discuss these issues with your parents, and then make your own decision about what to do. My thoughts are presented with humility and respect for your intelligence and spiritual sensitivity.

You mentioned that you sometimes have difficulty sustaining your concentration when you read (an experience that many former members of cultic groups report). Therefore, I ask that you please read this letter several times and on different days. Keep in mind the fundamental law of communication: "The message received is not necessarily the message sent." Please double-check to make sure that what you think I said ("message received") is indeed what I said ("message sent"). Thanks.

Let me begin by discussing what I think are your primary assets. First of all, you have soothing warmth, conveyed by your smile and body manners. Given that your mother is similar to you in this respect, I suspect that your warmth is part of your character and the base of whatever purity of mind you have been able to achieve (probably more important than any beneficial contribution your meditation may have made). Second, you obviously have a sincere and deep desire to be spiritual and good. Third, you're creative and intelligent, which gives you the potential to be adaptively flexible. And lastly, you're still relatively young and have plenty of time to get your life back on track. Many ex-members begin to rebuild their lives in their late 30s or 40s. Indeed, over the years the average age of people in our ex-member workshops has been about 36.

My conversations with your mother and you clearly indicate that, perhaps to your surprise (or perhaps you may be reluctant to admit it, even to yourself), she wants for you, in large part, what you want for yourself. You may sometimes think she worries too much. You're right; she does. But, after all, she is a mother! She wants what all loving mothers want for their children: that they feel good about themselves, have friends, choose a satisfying and productive vocation, and fall in love and raise a family. You, of course, would add getting close to God to this list of life goals.

In the various eastern meditative paths, the emphasis is on applying the proper technique to achieve particular internal states of mind ("purity of mind" seems to have been the goal you were pursuing). In Christianity the emphasis is upon achieving a proper relationship with God and our fellow humans. Purity of mind expresses itself through relationships with people. Indeed, it is only through relationships with people that purity of mind proves itself; without this accountability it may be nothing more than self-delusion. Prayer and Christian meditation are vital to achieving purity of mind and the loving relationships that accompany it. But in Christianity, relationship with others, not internal experience, is central. Following an eastern path focused on inner experience accentuated, in my opinion, your tendencies to isolate yourself psychologically, tendencies that I suspect existed even before you began meditating.

I also suspect that you may have "overdosed," so to speak, on meditation. Certainly, the spiritual literature of the East has many references to possible adverse effects of meditation (e.g., "Zen sickness"). In psychotherapy, as I may have mentioned, there is even a literature on what is paradoxically called "relaxation induced anxiety" (i.e., heightened states of anxiety, or even in some cases psychotic reactions, precipitated in some people by hypnotic forms of relaxation exercises). Let me draw an analogy to hallucinogenic drug experiences: I have known cases of people who initially had pleasant "trips" on LSD or Mescaline. After one or two "bad trips," however, things changed. They could not take the drug without re-experiencing the negative or at the least having it lurking fearfully in the background of their experience. They became sensitive to the negative that poisoned forever whatever positives they had experienced—and they stopped the drugs. I think your experience with meditation is similar. And that is why you may not be able to return to that form of meditation without running a considerable risk of harming yourself. So please, consider other paths to God. Meditation is not the only pathway.

In my opinion your search for God has two dimensions. On the one hand, your spiritual searching is genuine, deep, and persisting. On the other hand, your searching can sometimes mask a spiritual pride that prolongs your psychological isolation. It seems to me that the pride portion of your spiritual searching compensates for the very understandable discouragement you probably feel with regard to your capacity to achieve the life goals of intimacy, vocation, friends, self-esteem, and spiritual identity. Such discouragement is very common among former members of groups. Indeed, it is common among all people who, for whatever reason, don't achieve these basic life goals in early adulthood.

Society is structured such that young adults (mainly because of the time they spend in school) have ample opportunity to meet members of the opposite sex, to commit themselves to vocations, and to mingle with diverse types of people. This broad social experience provides young adults an opportunity to learn the rules of and become comfortable in social interactions. Nearly all young adults lack confidence in their capacity to achieve the basic life goals. But through trial, and error and with the support of the social structure, they pin down a vocation, learn to mix with people, and develop intimate relationships. Through these achievements, they strengthen self-esteem. Many also develop a spiritual identity that may stay with them throughout life. Unfortunately, enduring difficulties sometimes arise for those young adults whose personality or circumstances prevent them from achieving the life goals during young adulthood (e.g., because of unresolved psychological trauma, serious deficits in vocational/academic or social skills, a depth of spiritual searching that goes far beyond the norm).

My work with former cult members has sensitized me to the ways in which spiritual seekers get knocked off their life paths. Our pluralistic culture tolerates a spiritual "marketplace" in which hucksters, charlatans, sophists, and incompetents in western and eastern spiritual traditions compete with ethical and sensible spiritual teachers. Because there are no rules in this marketplace and because so many spiritual "consumers" are so ignorant about spiritual sophistry and psychological manipulation, the most successful competitors are often the cultic groups that are skilled in salesmanship and public relations. Frequently, spiritual seekers join up with a particular group or teacher not because they have systematically and thoroughly studied the range of options open to them, but because they happened to have come into contact with someone who has no trouble touting his/her own greatness and superiority. Often, these chance encounters will be invested with some special aura of "destiny"—which tends to stop the recruit from looking elsewhere.

During the past 20 years millions of young people have had such chance encounters and gotten entangled with groups and leaders who lure them into systems of belief and practice that may do more harm than good. Not uncommonly, members of such groups will spend their 20s and 30s pursuing spiritual goals that elude them. The more destructive systems convince the members that they and not the group are to blame for their failure to achieve "enlightenment," "become godly," "be free from sin," "be pure," or whatever the lofty goal is called. The groups that cause problems hold out the promise of spiritual superiority ("we were God's `green berets'"; "guru so-and-so is the avatar of the age and you have been chosen to be his disciple"; "follow this technique and you will become enlightened"). But at the same time they stifle the dissent and individuality that threatens to unhinge the leader's control. In my research study of 308 former members from 101 different groups, for example, the items receiving the two highest ratings were "members feel they are part of a special elite" and "the group advocates or implies that when members disagree with the group about fundamental perceptions and beliefs...the member must be wrong."

It is no wonder, then, that many ex-members are depressed, lack self-esteem, and grieve (in some cases long for) the sense of superiority, however illusory, that they had in the group. Yet they rarely go back. It seems that while they are in the group the illusion of elitism holds them in, even though they may suffer from stifling themselves for so long. But once this illusion has been pierced (even if only partially) and they leave, they tend to stay out because a painful truth is less painful than returning to a pleasant lie.

A great challenge for many ex-members is to recover their self-confidence and learn how to trust other people—and God—again. This challenge is magnified when years of psychological isolation, sometimes enforced by their group, closes off the "window of opportunity" young adulthood offers to those seeking to meet the life challenges of intimacy, vocation, friendship, and spiritual identity. Thus, at 35, rather than 20, these former group members find themselves bewildered about how to meet members of the opposite sex, what to do to make a living, how to make friends (or how to fit back into the lives of old friends who are busy with the demands of career and family), or how to get comfortable with God. The difficulty of meeting young-adult life challenges in one's late 30s or 40s can cause such discouragement in some people that they retreat into holes of despair or climb platforms of hollow superiority. The despair and superiority may oscillate in a debilitating and unproductive pendulum swing. When depressed, the person cannot take constructive actions to solve his problems. If he takes a step or two, his progress seems so minuscule compared to the distance left to travel that he either retreats back into despair or relieves his discouragement by isolating himself further in some illusory system of superiority.

What is the way out of this vacillating despair and superiority? In my opinion, there are five steps that must be taken:

1. Acknowledge that, like the rest of us human beings, you want intimacy, a vocation (which need not necessarily be a paid job), friends, and a spiritual identity. The biggest stumbling block to acknowledging this basic humanity is the defensive system of superiority that we are all tempted to construct in order to protect us against despair and discouragement.

2. You must muster the courage to acknowledge that you are discouraged about your capacity to achieve the basic life goals and, consequently, that you are not so superior as you often present yourself. Those people, like you, who are fortunate enough to have supportive family members will often receive encouragement to take constructive action. Sometimes this encouragement is linked to sound advice; sometimes it is linked to unsound advice. The vital element in this encouragement, however, is not the advice, but the love behind it, the implicit statement that "I believe you can travel the full distance." Discouraged persons who shrink away from acknowledging their despair, however, will sometimes resent those who encourage them because the encouragement underlines the fact that they are indeed discouraged, a fact that they don't want to confront.

3. Acknowledge that the life goals cannot be achieved except through a long series of small steps, which includes much trial and error and many stumbles. Discouraged persons often find this inescapable fact of social life very difficult to accept because they lack the confidence to believe that they can keep trying for such a long time. They are very tempted to reach out for illusory, quasi-magical quick-fixes, or they succumb to a mind-numbing inertia that others often see as "laziness." Because the marketplace provides them with so many kinds of slickly packaged "easy roads to happiness," discouraged persons will often waste more precious time chasing sophists and charlatans, if not cult leaders. The New Age movement, in particular, is full of quasi-magical solutions to life challenges that, in actuality, can only be met through effort, courage, and time. The New Age bazaar includes: weekend workshops that will "transform your life"; "channelers" who will give you the secrets of ancient wisdom; pseudoscientific gimmicks (e.g., certain food fads) that promise effortless healing; and meditative techniques that hold out the promise of happiness without having to leave your own mind, let alone leave your house. Although you may bristle at my attack on these New Age "solutions" to life problems, I cannot in good conscience hide my belief that if you are to move forward constructively, you must recognize that "happiness salesmen" are successfully peddling an enormous amount of nonsense and that you, like the rest of us, have bought into much more of this nonsense than you or we realize. I think it is vital that you critically reexamine many ideas that you may have held for a long time.

If you can acknowledge that there are no easy solutions and accept the encouragement of those who care about you, then you can begin the next step, which is

4. Apply the principles of problem solving to identify and evaluate optional strategies to achieve your goals. Wendy Ford's book, Recovery from Abusive Groups, has some useful advice in this regard.

In my opinion, this phase of the solution is most effectively accomplished in common-sense oriented psychotherapy. Psychotherapists who are locked into psychodynamic or existential models may see the approach I advocate as alien, or even repugnant. The approach I follow comes out of the Adlerian, social learning, and cognitive traditions. It assumes: (1) problem behaviors are mainly the result of learning (although biological processes can account for many symptoms of distress); (2) modifiable factors operating in the present regulate problem behaviors (deficits in social or cognitive skills are often critical factors that can be modified in therapy); (3) solutions nearly always require a series of strategic small steps toward the long-range goal(s); (4) progress should regularly be monitored and solution strategies altered if progress is unsatisfactory.

For example, with regard to vocation, I suggest that you reexamine the possible directions you could take. I believe you mentioned to me that you saw a vocational counselor once. Perhaps this might be a good time to contact her/him again to review the career possibilities open to you. Given your tendencies toward psychological isolation, I suggest that you deliberate very carefully about occupations in which you spend much time alone.

Rebuilding your social network is another important challenge that you must confront. Make an extra effort to contact extended family members and old friends, keeping in mind that, however much these people may enjoy seeing you, many (probably most) of them will be busy with their careers and families. So don't expect too much. Simply enjoy their company and see them again when it's convenient for both of you. Making friends (male and female) will most likely come from getting involved in social activities that are likely to be frequented by single people. When I worked in Boston, many clients seeking to meet people would take adult education courses, join clubs (such as the Appalachian Mountain Club), join museums and attend museum social events, and other such activities. Repeated exposure to strangers breaks down the barriers to communication. Get to know enough strangers and eventually you will find somebody with whom you "click." Again, these are just general possibilities. Solving this problem area will also require much detailed exploration of options and strategies.

With regard to your spiritual searching, I suggest that you treat it like a part-time Ph.D. program that will take 10 years to complete. Talk to a variety of people who hold different spiritual perspectives. Read always. Think about spiritual issues every day, but treat all of your daily "insights" as provisional. That which is truly golden will last; that which is illusory will ultimately be found out, if you don't rush to closure. Pray in whatever way seems to work for you. Although meditation can be helpful to many people, your particular experience suggests that you avoid meditation, at least the mind-emptying variety. Unless you are one of those rare individuals for whom a monastic life is suitable, it will be difficult to settle yourself spiritually while you still wrestle with the more mundane, but nonetheless pressing, issues of work, friendships, and intimacy. Be patient.

5. After you choose a course of action, don't be arrogant. Welcome the support and feedback of people who care for you, but don't treat their opinions as facts. Good intentions don't guarantee good advice, so be open but discerning. Don't give up too quickly, but nonetheless stay flexible, for sometimes a course of action needs to be modified or abandoned for another. And most importantly, don't succumb to the allure of quick fixes or retreat to a psychologically isolated platform of hollow superiority.

You have many good qualities. You have a warm heart that is capable of loving much. You have made great progress during the past year. Continue to move forward with courage and discernment. Don't be afraid to seek and accept help. Acknowledge discouragement when you feel it. Recognize that despair and superiority are both dead ends. And never forget that progress results from taking one step at a time. When you trip, simply get up, welcome what help might be available, and start walking forward again.


Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.