Are All Organizations Cults?

Netflix has a new documentary out called ‘Wild Wild Country.’ This documentary centers on an ashram (in this case, really a cult) in Wasco County, Oregon. The group claimed to focus on “dynamic meditation, free love, harmony, and the crafting of The New Man.” Even more recently, there was alarming news about a group called Nxivm and Allison Mack.

As someone who spent part of her childhood in an ashram in New York, I have friends who watch ‘Wild Wild Country’ or follow the news and they ask me if these events mirrored my experience. In fact, I had a friend ask me if the ashram I grew up was the sex trafficking one and she is here if I wanted to talk about it.

To be completely clear, my experience was not anything like the show or what I’m reading on the news, but I do like to joke and say that ‘I survived a cult.’ Truthfully, where I grew up felt like a community where everyone did their part to make the ashram grow and thrive. Like all experiences, I can point out things I disliked (such as milking cows at dawn), and I can also point out things I loved (such as learning about Ayurveda). One thing my experience did teach me was that any organization could be perceived as a ‘cult.’ And if that is the case, the most important thing you can ask yourself is whether what your organization stands for is compatible with your own core beliefs.

Some of the best things I can take away from my experience at the ashram is:

  • A sense of purpose – I learned that most people are seeking a sense of purpose regardless of what they do. Some spend their time going to an ashram, joining a church, or even going to work every day. This is why it’s so important to explain ‘the why’ when you are trying to introduce a concept or idea to someone. Everyone wants to feel like he or she have a stake or purpose in what he or she does. People want to feel like they contribute a significant piece to the whole.
  • Exclusivity – I notice this now more than ever. People want to feel like what they are doing is only for them (or a select few) and not necessarily something they can find or get anywhere else. It’s an experience that is a privilege to be part of, and they are unique for having taken advantage of the opportunity.
  • Blind faith – I remember as a kid standing in line for what felt like hours to see Mata Amritanandamayi, better known as ‘Amma.’ The number of people in line was astounding. I finally got up to the front of the line, and ‘Amma’ hugged me and said a prayer in my ear. As a kid, I was completely overwhelmed and did not understand a word she said to me. It might have been in Malayalam or English or Hindi – I don’t remember. So after the hugging and prayer, I told my friends that I didn’t understand what she said. As a result, many people around me started telling me what they believe she blessed me with – the ideas varied from having an amazing life to doing great on my math test on Monday. What I took away from this experience is the amount of faith that people had in this one person and how even without hearing a word, they believed in her philosophies. Isn’t that what we want from people who work in an organization? Faith in the mission? Knowing that they will believe in you when you might not believe in yourself fully? And people’s ability to fill in the gaps to further the mission goal when communication breaks down is unparalleled.
  • Charismatic personality – This one is counter-intuitive. When you show empathy and genuinely care about someone else’s growth, people are drawn to you. Stop talking and start listening.
  • Culture – I remember once describing where I lived more regarding its people: “everyone is nice” I said. Looking back, it sounds a bit like Stepford. Just for a second, think about your organization. How would you describe it? I asked a friend this question, and his answer was ‘drama.’ I’m not sure that’s the culture you might want to join. The point here is that every organization has a culture, and it’s important to recognize it and reflect on whether its culture is what you’re looking for.
  • Repetitive behavior and structure – When we lived in the ashram, there was schedule. I woke up at 5:30 and went to meditation and the day continued from there, with other events throughout the day that I had to do when I was not in school. It created a sense of structure for everyone. In the army, it was also very similar. What’s strange is that the more distance from the ashram I have, the more I find that we all fall into repetitive behavior and structure. It’s our nature.

These behaviors can be observed all around us in our ordinary corporate and personal lives. Coming to this realization lets us view these practices and allow you the opportunity to decide if they are right for you. Sometimes they are and sometimes they are not. Once you’ve come to this realization, the next question is what, if anything, will you change?

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