The Existential Risks and Trauma of Leaving a Cult


By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott is the Founder of Skeptic Meditations. He speaks from experience in entering and leaving an ashram. Here we talk about existential risks for an individual leaving a cult, views of the world only knowing the cult, leaving psychologically and physically from the cult, places for transition, and some who never get over their trauma.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What bigger existential risks exist for the individual who leaves the cult, immediately?

Scott from The more the group members lived in the ashrams the greater their self-identity was broken and reformed as part of the group. In other words, group members’ existence was attached to monastic identity, name, and position within the spiritual-organizational hierarchy.

Cloistered spiritual groups are most undemocratic and unequal. The superior, powerful members are those closest to the leaders. Group members learn quickly how to please and fight their way to maintain or climb up the spiritual-corporate ladder. It’s a kind of spiritual-ego formed within the context of the organization.

It is difficult to describe what a member feels and thinks after leaving their relationships within a group that for years or decades destroyed, then reformed and maintained their spiritual-ego or self-world identity. Members who leave the group psychologically, first, before they leave physically, probably have a lower risk of failing to reintegrate into society outside.

When you think about cults, the aim of these groups and the members who join them, is to break down the old self-world identity. Labeled as spiritual training, the aim of groups based on ideological thought-reform leads to abuses of its members: whether political, social, or religious groups.

For religious cult-groups, the aim is to remold members into the image of the God, Guru, or perfection as idealized in the spiritual practices of the group. In cults with an Eastern enlightenment-bent, the path is purportedly divinely designed to bring follower-practitioners to perfection, to realize self as Self, soul, or God or Nirvana.

The practice and progress to the aim are measured by degrees of selfless service and obedience to the spiritual teacher, and distrusting self. Through the aims and ideals of the group’s spiritual training, members allow themselves to be destroyed, broken, and in the old self’s place a new self is created, fashioned to fit the group.

This is not a secret. It’s openly discussed by members that the outside world is dangerous, evil, or deluded and inside the group, close to the master-teacher is spiritual safety and illumination. Psychologically cult groups break the member’s sense of self and then reframe follower’s self-world identity.

Essentially members surrender their existence (their self-world image) to the authority of someone who claims to know what is best for the disciple-follower. For members who’ve lived for years and decades inside, psychologically these groups, the damage is irreparable.

Jacobsen: How does someone view the world if the cult or cult-like group is all they have ever known in life?

Scott from Long-time cult-group members fear to leave the group for many reasons. In the SRF ashrams, for example, we were taught that as ordained monastics we were somehow special, were chosen by God and Guru to help with his divine dispensation of SRF teachings and meditation techniques.

Our belief in our specialness made us feel superior and powerful–with the weight and authority of Creator of the Universe behind us, who could ultimately be against us?

Surrender and obedience to external authority become easy when you are told you are special, superior, and forerunners of a new race of spiritual beings destined to raise the consciousness of humanity and the world.

The darker side of our belief in this story is that if we ever left the guru-teacher or broke our vows of loyalty then we were told we would not only risk losing everything spiritually but would  possibly have to wander in darkness, suffer, lost in delusion (Maya) for seven future lifetimes (future human incarnations).

That is heavy fear and pressure to stay physically and psychologically with the group and its leader-teacher.

There is a certain degree of an annihilation of self that occurs upon entering, staying, and psychologically leaving the cult doctrine. That is perhaps why many former members who leave cults hold onto the underlying beliefs that led them and kept them in the group in the first place.

We humans have a deep need to create meaning in a seemingly meaningless universe. Our cultures (cults: familial, social, economic, political, philosophical or theological) breed and offer meaning, which we seldom take time to examine carefully.

I think this is why existential philosophers, like Nietzsche, declared God is dead but acknowledged the fact that the natural world was a nightmare of horror tinged with moments of art and beauty.

When a member of the cult group, that pretends to offer the ultimate answers to life and purpose of existence, when that member psychologically or physically leaves the group or ideology that creates for him or her a crisis of existence.

Jacobsen: How can members who are thoroughly entrenched in the doctrine of the cult’s worldview leave mentally and then physically?

Scott from If a member of the ashram left or was asked by group leaders to leave the ashram, and yet they didn’t psychologically leave behind the SRF monastic ideology, then leaving physically didn’t make much if any change in their cultic worldview.

Perhaps, the members who left physically but not psychologically have to struggle with guilt and shame of not being good enough to stay, even if they “chose” to leave.

There are numerous former monks who I talked with after I left, though they physically left the ashram, clung psychologically to the Yogi-cultic doctrines of the teacher Yogananda, SRF, or kept revolving their worldview around devotion to God and Guru and spiritual liberation through yoga meditation.

Some former ashram members told me that their experiences in meditation prove the existence of kundalini (astral energies) awakened in their spine (a Yogic doctrine espoused by SRF and many Eastern-styled meditation groups), as if that is somehow meaningful and real beyond doubt.

When their understanding is these mystical experiences (mystical interpretations of the natural world), which were implanted into our minds in the first place by the external authority, teachings, or teacher, how would they know that is kundalini in his spine?

Didn’t some external authority tell him that and give him that distinction and interpretation? He’s psychologically trapped in the teacher’s ideology, though he left the ashram a decade ago.

Clearly many former cult members have not “left” the cult psychologically. They don’t leave behind the underlying premises that brought, kept, and controlled them while they physically lived inside the cultic group. Many continue to believe and practice the underlying teachings or doctrines of the external authority.

My own leaving psychologically unfolded gradually. For years and perhaps a decade or more starting while I lived in the SRF ashram. Then when upon physically leaving the group I at first believed that my reason for leaving was flaws of organized religion, of imperfect humans.

I continued to meditate and believe in the underlying premises (God, guru, meditation powers and energies) espoused by SRF and mystical, spiritual yoga meditation or enlightenment. Though I could not make sense at first of why I failed to interpret my experiences as special or mystical and enlightening as the teacher and group had promised.

Eventually, I saw that what I’d believed in was a false doctrine. That the whole thing was a fraud, and that we’d simply been abused. It really hurts to admit that. But to admit I was a victim of abuse has helped me to process, learn, and get through the trauma.

Jacobsen: Do halfway houses or safe transition houses exist for ex-cult members as with women who were victims of domestic abuse?

Scott from I’m not aware of organized, physical safe houses for victims of cult abuse in the United States. Though there are some online support groups. In U.S. society, I think, pretends there are no victims of abuses.

Self-reliance is sometimes insufficient. In the U.S., there is an underlying premise in society everybody should be able to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and not expect anyone, certainly not society, to take care of us.

Perhaps the heartlessness of self-reliance is one reason why in the U.S. we have so many religious factions, fundamentalists, and cults vying for mindshare. And, why there seems to be no end to the supply of members joining and leaving religions and cults.

So, for the most part, cult members in the U.S. when they leave the group, they pretty much are on their own. Some are fortunate to have supportive family and friends. But, as I noted above, many cult members abandoned or destroyed their former relationships upon entering and obeying the rules of the cult.

However, I do know of a few informal halfway houses for former religious clergy or cult-members to transition back into society.

The Clergy Project, a nonprofit for clergy who no longer believe in the supernatural, provide online resources and sometimes training and funding for former clergy to reintegrate back into society.

There’s Recovering From Religion that provides a toll-free hotline, but it is not focused on cults per se, but on people struggling to come out of religion (which as I mentioned above physically leaving a cult group is not the same as psychologically leaving the religion or underlying doctrine of the cult).

I’ve heard that Leah Remini, producer, and host of the TV documentary series Scientology and the Aftermath, is trying to organize a nonprofit to support Scientology Sea Org (e.g. clergy) who want to leave and to reintegrate into society.

When I left the Self-Realization Fellowship Order, never to return physically, I was fortunate to find the informal support of several members and former monastics of SRF.

Without their material (donations of household items to stock my new apartment) and psychological support (listening and understanding), I may have had a much more challenging reintegration back into society.

Or, if I had left without their support would have felt perhaps totally isolated and alone. (Self-reliance is mostly a myth. We rely on support from others, especially during our crises.)

I sometimes feel alone in my experiences but then I occasionally meet former cult members who I can identify with. But there seems to be a little more public conversation in the mainstream, but mostly alternative media about cult-groups and members who exit cults.

That kind of vulnerability, feeling isolated and alone, is often what cults and their leaders prey on and target in recruits. So whatever we as society can do to support our members to be independently interdependent; to be part of a supportive community not conditioned by conforming to a set ideology is, I believe, extremely important for social progress and for the survival of the natural world of which humans are part.

Jacobsen: Do some never ‘get over’ their experiences, the trauma for example?

Scott from Yes. It breaks you to be a committed member of a cult or psychologically-controlling group. Members join, knowingly or unknowingly, for the promise of spiritual training, which begins by breaking down the ego, self-identity. There’s much trust placed in God, Guru-teacher, and spiritual truth.

When the promises turn out to be false, that breaks members too. As the member’s self-identity softens, breaks down, the member submits to the cult’s reforming, reshaping into a new self-identity.

The break-down of self at first can often feel exhilarating, elating, ecstatic, liberating. But this breakdown and reshaping of self-identity is at best a waste of time, at worst dangerous. Members may never regain the lost years in the group: time wasted, not spent building useful skills, relationships, family, career, intellect, and so on.

Many former members never really seem to get over their trauma. Many turn inward on themselves: to guilt, shame, or depression, sometimes suicide. Again, the guilt and self-world break-down is part of the conditioning, or spiritual training, underlying membership in cultic groups.

Members blame the victim, even if it’s them. The underlying premises are the spiritual teachings and teachers are perfect and if anyone doesn’t find that perfection in them then it is the member’s fault.

They are not spiritual enough or too blinded by ego-self and so on. Many former members are perhaps damaged for the remainder of their life. Often current and former members have huge trust issues: lack of trust in self and others.

A need for existential meaning and a need to seek answers from external authority. I have been working for years since I left the ashram cult to rebuild self-world identity and regain the relationships that I had abandoned with family and friends.

A huge motivation for my doing this interview with you is to speak out about the harms of such groups, to process my experiences, and hopefully help by telling my story and perspectives.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Scott.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

One thought on “The Existential Risks and Trauma of Leaving a Cult

  1. Tim Underwood

    “Perhaps the heartlessness of self-reliance is one reason why in the U.S. we have so many religious factions, fundamentalists, and cults vying for mindshare.”

    You have probably identified a major point. A more social minded country would have people and places to go for: housing, money, job placement, work training and education. All these things exist now but these services are restricted and not usually integrated.

    Even the regulation of religious institutes is missing so these institution are free to prey upon citizens anyway they choose within the criminal law. The Catholic Church is free to practice the exorcism of demons from innocent juveniles here in North America.

    There exists today sufficient archeological, historical and evidential facts about all religions to render these practices scientifically implausible. Religious leaders, at a minimum, should prove they are up to date on our current understandings of the religious practices they are employed in before they are granted a licence to do so. This would at least raise the competence bar to the level of a driving instructor.


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