Ex-Morninglanders

ML Cult

IS MORNINGLAND A CULT, AND WHAT DOES THAT REALLY MEAN?

This website will sometimes refer to Morningland as a cult. The term is the author’s opinion and is not meant in a derogatory way but to remain aligned with contemporary researchers who study similar groups. The author does not condone violence or discrimination against any group. The following article seeks to establish a better understanding of terminologies related to new religious movements, high demand groups, types of cults, their underlying hierarchical structures, and transparency, and how that relates to our shared Morningland experiences.

We thought we joined a spiritual movement, a spiritual family of other idealists who wished to live in a better world and be better people. We stayed in Morningland because we liked the idea of having spiritual teachers and a community-based lifestyle. If there were nothing good about Morningland, we would not have stayed. But with time, many of us began to identify red flags, disrespectful and manipulative behavior. Initially, we ignored or justified them with what we were taught to think, “Ah, The Gopis or Patricia (Sri Donato) are just people with flaws, but their intentions were good. ” Others followed their Buddhist-inspired instructions of ‘correct’ thinking, “If I see a fault in a guru, I am not seeing correctly.” For many of us, the disillusionment was a slow process. Leaving the group in which we invested years of our lives was traumatic but necessary. We did not think we were in a cult when we were in it – the justifications, blind spots, and their belief system make it very hard to see it from the inside. Only after we left, and began talking to one another, sharing experiences, and especially learning about similar groups could we see our Morningland experience more objectively, outside the confines of their “correct thinking.”

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In the U.S. the word cult has a derogatory undertone due to a history of cult leaders such as Jim Jones, David Koresh, and mass suicides. Additionally, cult is not a very descriptive word as we do not have a single, unified meaning. For example, there are many types of cults. Their control, influence, and destructiveness vary between and within groups. Some are almost benign, while others can be dangerous, with many falling somewhere in between. Researchers Steve Hassan, PhD, and Janja Lalich, PhD agree that unhealthy, culty groups will have the following components:

  • Hierarchical power structure
  • Charismatic authoritarian leader
  • Transcendent ideology
  • Control Mechanisms and Influence (which includes deception and lack of transparency)

These factors are not always immediately apparent unless one knows what to look for, which this article seeks to establish.

TERMINOLOGIES

CULT – NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENT – HIGH DEMAND GROUP – INTENTIONAL COMMUNITIES

CULT, simplified definitions:

The earliest known uses of the word, recorded in the 17th century, broadly denoted “worship.” By the early 18th century, cult could refer to a non-religious admiration or devotion, such as to a person, idea, or fad (“the cult of success”). Finally, by the 19th century, the word came to be used of “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.'” (Merriam-Webster dictionary)

Cults come in many forms: political, terrorist, racist, religious, New Age, personal transformation, psychotherapy, multilevel marketing, one-on-one, occult, satanic, a cult of personality, etc. (Lalich, PhD, Take Back Your Life)

Two types of cults that, in our opinion, describe Morningland well are the New Age Cult and the Cult of Personality.

New Age cult appears to be a very good description and matches Morningland very well:

“Often the leader presents herself or himself as mystical, an ultra-spiritual being, a channeler, a medium, or a superhero. New Age groups, more so than some of the other types, tend to have female leaders. Members rely on New Age paraphernalia, such as crystals, astrology, runes, shamanic devices, holistic medicine, herbs, spirit beings, or Tarot or other magic cards. Practices and influence techniques: magic tricks, altered states, peer pressure, channeling, UFO sightings, “chakra” adjustments, faith healing, or claiming to speak with or through ascended masters, spiritual entities, and the like.” (Lalich, PhD)

Cult of Personality goes hand in hand with the person’s charisma and the followers’ zealous devotion:

A cult of personality, sometimes referred to as a personality cult, is defined as “exaggerated devotion to a charismatic political, religious, or other leader.” Authoritarian figures are often associated with cults of personality, as are totalitarian regimes. Leaders of cults of personality often use imagery and the manipulation of mas media to form an exalted, even superhuman, version of their persona in the minds of their followers. Their followers accept the leader’s persona and authority, which leads to their devotion to the leader and their mission to bring about an imagined future (C. Vinney PhD, 2021)

Typically, the charismatic leader can demand and receive complete devotion from his or her followers. The foundation of charismatic authority is emotional, not rational: it rests on trust and faith, both of which can be blind and uncritical. Unrestrained by custom, rules, or precedent, the charismatic leader can demand and receive unlimited power. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2022,)

NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENT (NRM) is a modern term often used for cults that are new religions. Gopis often said that Morningland was a New Religious Movement.

The term new religious movement has been applied to all new faiths that have arisen worldwide over the past several centuries. These [NRM] movements are often highly eclectic, pluralistic, and syncretistic; they freely combine doctrines and practices from diverse sources within their belief systems. The new movement is usually founded by a charismatic and sometimes highly authoritarian leader who is thought to have extraordinary powers or insights. Many NRMs are tightly organized. In light of their often self-proclaimed “alternative” or “outsider” status, these groups often make great demands on the loyalty and commitment of their followers and sometimes establish themselves as substitutes for the family and other conventional social groupings” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2022)

HIGH DEMAND GROUP is a term used interchangeably with the term cult as it specifies the high level of commitment one is required to give to secure their place in the group.

The group is focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment. The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members. The leadership dictates sometimes in great detail how members should think, act, and feel. The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and members (for example: the leader is considered the Messiah or an avatar; the group and/or the leader has a special mission to save humanity) etc (S. Eichel PhD)

INTENTIONAL COMMUNITY – Interestingly, when googling Morningland today, there is no mention of the call for devotees of “Donato the Christ,” and the important work to recruit more people for this “divine” purpose (no one knows what that might be). Instead, their online identity is presented with culturally acceptable and currently popular elements such as yoga, mindfulness, community, and sustainability. They are nested under the umbrella of intentional communities, which refer to a wide variety of organizations that share a common value and may or may not have anything to do with cults, new religious movements, or high-demand groups. Based on information from the Fellowship for Intentional Community (2005), 64% of Intentional Communities are democratic, and 9% are actually hierarchical and authoritarian. This makes a decent amount of intentional communities potential cults or high-demand groups.

SYSTEMS OF CONTROL

THE AUTHORITARIAN POWER STRUCTURE – HIERARCHY

A destructive cult is a pyramid-shaped authoritarian regime with a person or group of people that have dictatorial control.” (Hassan PhD, FreedomOfMind)

In general, cults have a hierarchical or pyramid type of structure. At the lowest level, members are part-timers who are only partially committed to the group and [and will] less likely to be manipulated or abused to any significant extent because achieving strong influence over a person really requires that they be exposed to a mind control environment on a more full-time basis. Mind control [aka deep influence] only works on a foundation of personal friendship and trust, and it takes time and effort. … intensive mind control is generally only applied to selected individuals who are perceived to be not only receptive but who also have something that the group leadership wants. Sometimes this is money or sex, or it may be some practical or business skill which is desired by the group leadership in order to expand the group or to raise money. (Ex-Cult Resource Center)

Former political cult member Alexandra Stein Ph.D., in her book “Terror, Love, and Brainwashing” writes about the structure of hierarchical, totalistic groups:

The structure must allow the transmission downward of the leader’s orders and ideological pronouncements while simultaneously funneling resources from followers back upwards to the leader. …. although the group is closed and steeply hierarchical, usually this hierarchy is fluid and fluctuating. There is generally a lieutenant layer, but as the leader must prevent alternative power bases from developing, he or she ensures that life as a lieutenant is insecure with frequent promotions and demotions in these higher ranks.

The ideology is determined by the leader and can be changed at a moment’s notice by the leader, and only by the leader. The sacred word is the word of the leader, or something that of a deity to whom the leader is the only one to have a direct line.

Closed-in social system –> We were taught to see Sri Donato and the Gopis as our connection to God, and our spiritual salvation. In reality, it was social isolation. This should not come as a surprise as cultic groups are closed social systems with clearly defined group boundaries (those who internalized Sri Donato as their connection to God were “in, spiritually evolving” and those who did not were “out, spiritually fallen”). The social world “in” the group replaces the relationships outside the group.

CHARISMATIC, AUTHORITARIAN LEADER / GURU

Typically, charismatic leader can demand and receive complete devotion from their followers. The foundation of charismatic authority is emotional, not rational: it rests on trust and faith, both of which can be blind and uncritical” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2022).

No oversight –> Such a leader does not answer to anyone. There is no impartial and objective oversight. The leader is surrounded by devoted followers who do not dare oppose or challenge the status quo.

The leader’s often self-proclaimed ‘credentials’ of enlightenment or special wisdom allow that person to assume unlimited power and present themselves as always right without questioning. In Morningland, the leaders, whether they were Sri Donato, her husband Donato or current leaders Gopi Saravati and Gopi Chokru, are seen as perfect examples of spiritually developed beings who have allegedly transcended their human emotional nature. The followers are required to demonstrate loyalty and obedience to the leader without questioning or doubting their guidance. Loyalty and obedience also happen to be instrumental in securing the leader’s control and influence over the followers.

Deep emotional attachment –> Those in a cult seldom recognize that they are in one because the connection to the leader and the group is mainly emotional, not rational. When we internalized the leader as our roadmap to spiritual protection and God, the attachment became spiritual. It was a psychological co-option of our inner and outer life. This is why reading about cults and identifying other groups as cults did not help us recognize that we were in one too.

DECEPTION

Deception is another key difference between established religions and cultic groups. You can research any established religion, learn about their key tenets, and make an informed decision about your life with this group before joining their ranks. Not in cults – they are very secretive, and lack even the basic transparency.

A destructive cult is a pyramid-shaped authoritarian regime with a person or group of people that have dictatorial control. It uses deception to recruit new members and does not tell them what the group is, what the group actually believes, and what will be expected of them if they become members. It also uses undue influence to keep people dependent, obedient, and loyal. (Hassan, PhD, FreedomOfMind)

The omission of key information is a misleading act and also a form of deception. When we came to Morningland, we were invited to culturally popular events, such as meditation or a yoga class. The group’s complete belief system and history were not available to us. Their key tenets were revealed to us slowly over a longer time. One such tenet was that Master Donato was seen as a Christ, the Avatar for the Aquarian Age (one of many that sprang in the 1970s), and that Sri Donato’s and the Gopis’ thoughts, emotions, and actions were considered pure and, therefore should not be questioned. As newcomers, we were not informed that male disciples will be “suggested” to undergo a vasectomy as a way of preserving spiritual energy necessary for spiritual development. The organization’s full history was not disclosed. We were encouraged to develop complete trust in the Gopis and Sri Donato which they took advantage of.

Steve Hassan PhD shares his memory of a time when he was being recruited by young, beautiful women, members of the Unification Church:

At some point they said they were part of a student movement, trying to make the world a better place. I said, “Are you part of some sort of religious group?” They said no. They also didn’t say they were celibate and that Reverend Moon was going to match people and tell them when they could have sex. If they had, I would have said: “You’re crazy, leave me alone.” I say this to highlight the point about deception: people don’t knowingly join cults. (the Guardian)

TRANSCENDENT BELIEF SYSTEM

The leader represents the group’s ideal, the highest achievement or self-realization. They are often seen as the embodiment of God-like qualities. They use their ideology (typically a collection of bits and pieces from other spiritual or religious traditions) and promise personal and group transcendence and salvation. To attain this alleged state, the followers must follow the leader’s example and obey their guidelines, even if it goes against their core values. They are not supposed to question or doubt in the process if they were to remain in the cultic leader’s good graces.

The transcendent belief system ensnares people in a number of ways. Each member’s constant striving for an impossible ideal makes them feel inadequate about themselves and their accomplishments. All they know is that they must work harder to live up to the group’s demands, change themselves, and become more perfect. A large part of this push for perfection is that people are encouraged to constantly scrutinize, criticize, or even berate themselves and other group members. Each follower’s dedication and personal commitment impels him or her to become self-recriminating and self-critical and to be deeply critical of others as well. This interplay of critical attitudes and self-condemning behaviors means that people don’t have the time or clarity to seriously question their leader’s actions, rigid ideas, or the workings of the controlling social system that the leader has created.” (Escaping Utopia)

In many transcendent belief systems, wonder, free-thinking, and doubt are welcomed and supported. But in the controlled and sealed-off world of cults, free-thinking and doubt are not allowed. In many cults, your purpose is to become a perfect person: unquestioning, fiercely dedicated, and doubt-free devotee.” (Lalich, McLaren)

The Gopis told us that doubt is the enemy of the spiritual, and comes from outside Morningland. As disciples we were discouraged from questioning and doubting the Gopis’ judgment and their spiritual guidance. We were encouraged to reject our thoughts (doubts) as invalid, which was a form of gaslighting – denying our own reality. Doubt is a necessary tool that ensures discernment and prevents blind obedience. Blind, non-discerning obedience is a fast track to doing as we were told without much thought about it, even if it goes against our core values.

The ends justify the means. You can be asked to do anything, and as long as it is in the service of the goals of the organization and the leader’s wishes, it is ok. Over time members give up their own morality to follow the morality of the leader.” (Lalich, PhD)

CONTROL

The following excerpts of the BITE model by Steve Hassan, Ph.D.

  • BEHAVIOR CONTROL – Promoting an ongoing dependence on the leader’s advice, proximity, and good graces, to ensure unwavering loyalty. Using rewards and punishment to modify followers’ behavior.
  • INFORMATION CONTROL – Deliberately withhold and distort information, promote secrecy within the community and forbid sharing information among members and partners, discourage access to non-cult sources of information, divide information into insider vs. outsider doctrine (closer disciples vs. regular disciples vs. members vs. outsiders), and forbid or discourage from speaking with ex-members.
  • THOUGHT CONTROL – Instill us vs. them, & good vs. evil thinking. Changing followers’ identity (i.e., you are now lay-monks/ your name is now xy) that is strongly linked with the group or leader. Using loaded language and cliches. Encourage to reject rational analysis, critical thinking, & doubt if it goes against the group’s doctrine. Using guilt ensures members think positively about other members and the leaders while denying their personal experience.
  • EMOTIONAL CONTROL -Instill irrational fears of questioning or leaving the group. Seek to label some emotions low, worldly, wrong, immature, unevolved, etc. Teach emotion-stopping techniques. Shunning for disobeying or disbelieving. Only positive emotions are allowed.

Examples of using BITE controls to secure attachment to the leader and/or group using fear (emotional control):

  • Fear of the external world is used to solidify one’s attachment and loyalty to the leader and their place in the hierarchy. Sri Donato / Patricia would say that leaving her would result in our spiritual fall and a de-evolution into a quark. The Gopis were more subtle and instilled a quiet warning of losing true security from the dark forces. They added that Donato was the very last Christ or Avatar to have incarnated on Earth, and this was our last chance to evolve beyond this planet. We were told Earth was in its dark Kali Yuga age, and Morningland was in the Golden Age, the Shangri-La. Therefore, leaving Morningland would result in separation from a direct connection to God.
  • The attachment to the group and the leaders were solidified in their talks about the Apocalypse/End Days and the urgency to “save” (recruit) more people. Our worldview was supposed to be dark and apocalyptic, making Morningland seem like a spiritual refuge. There was no space for seeing anything positive in the world. IS THIS A SIGN OF A DOOMSDAY CULT?

INFLUENCE

The influence is based on a continuum, which varies within a group and between its members, depending on their usefulness to the leaders.

Overall, constructive groups will lean in a healthy direction on all accounts, while destructive groups will not, as that would dissolve their structure and power. When in Morningland, many of us heard the leaders endorse most of the items on the constructive side, creating the impression that this was our reality. However, reality and words in cultic groups are typically not in sync (details in What the Gopis Said). Due to the suppression of critical thinking, the followers tend to accept the leaders’ narrative and sweep evidence to the contrary under the rug. Brief examples of the influence continuum:

Accountable – Claims Absolute Authority –> This one is self explanatory. Cultic leaders typically do not take responsibility for their actions or words that do not make them look good. They typically deny, deflect, and flip the story – find any way to avoid accountability and protect their absolute authority.

Trustworthy Secretive/Deceptive – when we were in ML, we were frequently encouraged to trust the leaders, which we did. That was the group’s norm. At that time we did not know that withholding key information about the organization’s past and other relevant information automatically deemed them not worthy of our trust. The betrayal of our trust was even more severe as years went by.

Empowers individual – Power Hungry –> The massive power imbalance in cultic groups cannot support true empowerment of the followers. It only secures an ongoing dependence on and obedience to the leader. Followers do not learn to trust their judgment but that of the leader, especially for matters related to their private lives.

Free Will / Critical thinking – Dependency, Obedience –> Obedience to the leaders and dependency on their guidance (moral, spiritual, practical, relational, etc) was considered crucial in the guru-disciple relationship. Free will is limited to the constraints of the group’s ideology, and the words of the leader, and thus cannot be fully exercised independent of their intense influence. Critical thinking was suppressed as opposing or critiquing the leader’s words was deemed nonspiritual and strongly frowned upon.

Leaving the group – doors swing both ways and one can leave Morningland much easier than enter. However, the process of indoctrination into the Morningland social structure and discipleship created extremely deep psychological chains. Once we internalized their ideology, we understood that by leaving, we will lose everything. The belief system made us fear that by leaving we will abandon our spiritual development, and betray the guru, or even God’s plan. Other consequences include being shunned, losing former friends and an entire lifestyle. The process of leaving, while physically easy, was anything but so, and was quite traumatic.

Takeaways: Cult (New Age, Personality) – New Religious Movement – High Demand Group, Authoritarian-Hierarchical-Pyramid power structure, Charismatic leader, Deception, Dependency, BITE controls, Influence continuum

Mantika, June 2023