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How to Build a Cult

Not all Mind Management Systems are equal. Some have spawned religions, others have flourished into cults.  Quite a few of these involve some rather supernatural claims. A recurring theme is channeling. Channeling is the claim that the information obtained comes from disembodied entities through the claimant.

In the 1930s, Edna and Guy Ballard claimed to be receiving wisdom from St. Germaine, an 18th century saint, after he appeared to them on Mount Shasta in California. A community quickly sprung around them and the I Am movement was born.

In 1940, Gerald B. Bryan, a former member, published Psychic Dictatorship in America, in an effort to expose the couple as frauds and the I Am movement as a cult. In spite of this and a failed federal lawsuit filed against them that same year, the I Am movement continues to persist and the teachings are to this day collected and taught by the St. Germaine Foundation.

In the 1960s two other New Age channels came to prominence. Jane Roberts claimed that a personality named Seth, someone who had survived death, was coming through her to teach about the nature of human reality and responsibility. Roberts authored and published a number of books and ran numerous Seth-guided sessions in which Seth would spontaneously take possession of her body.

In 1967, Helen Schucman, a psychologist in New York, also claimed that she was hearing the voice of a man who would eventually dictate to her the textual material known as A Course in Miracles. Unlike the Ballards or Roberts, Schucman did not make any money from these writings, and in fact they were not published until after her death. The man in question that Shucman allegedly channeled, she later identified, was Jesus.

In the 1980s, a man by the name of Jach Pursel claimed to channel a spiritual entity named Lazaris, which allegedly first visited him in 1974.  Like Roberts, Pursel would be possessed by the entity, his voice and mannerisms would change during retreats, seminars and recordings, while he delivered advice on how reality works and how happiness and full potential can be reached.

Pursel’s ex-wife, Penny, and her husband, Michaell, both of whom were Pursel’s business partners, died within days of each other under unusually tragic circumstances in 2001. Police attributed Penny’s death to an accidental overdose on her medication, and her husband’s death was by suicide. Jach Pursel’s teachings continue unabated although some began to question why Lazaris’s proximity to two senior members of the community could not have prevented the tragedy.

In the 1990s, husband and wife team, Jerry and Esther Hicks, shot to fame with claims that they were channeling the wisdom of spiritual entities known as Abraham. While Jerry Hicks died of cancer in 2011, Esther Hicks continues to teach. Unlike earlier appearances, her channeling nowadays takes place without the minor changes in personality, accent or behavior.

What interests me is how easily the channels’ claims of accessing disembodied consciousnesses are accepted. Schucman’s biographer, Kenneth Wapnick, for example, noted that her writing when she was channeling, was so different in tone and register to the woman he knew, that he was convinced the text had a distinct author. Similarly, in a rare recording, Jane Roberts had this to say about her own initial skepticism of what she was experiencing:

I didn’t particularly believe in the survival of personality to begin with. I also figured that if a personality survived they had a lot better things to do than come through on a Ouija board. I thought it was on the level of my subconscious or something. The material that we got, however, was excellent. And I was enough of a critical writer my self to know that the material was good. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have continued. It made sense in a philosophical way, and it showed no extravagance in terms of going overboard religiously. It was sound psychologically as far as we could tell.

I have heard this same claim made by psychiatrist Brian Weiss, who stumbled on what he believes are retrievals of past life memories during hypnosis, when he was in a session with a patient named Catherine. In addition to recalling alleged past life memories, Weiss also believed that Catherine intermittently channeled information from other beings. In his book Many Lives, Many Masters, Weiss wonders:

What was the source of this material? This did not sound at all like Catherine. She had never spoken like this, using these words, this phraseology. Even the tone of her voice was totally different….She later identified the Masters, highly evolved souls, not presently in body, as the source.

Weiss, not unlike Wapnick or Roberts in their respective contexts, appears to accept Catherine’s explanation for the source of her words because they were not consistent with her personality.

While the teachings of the Ballards, Roberts, Schucman, Pursel and the Hicks are all elegant and profound–the mythology attached to their origin needs to be de-mystified and contextualized. By doing this, practitioners can benefit from the ideas without being sucked into the hypnotic trance of the obscure and ambiguous–a state rife for forming cult-like attachments and dependencies.

Let us assume that  every one of these channels are sincere in their belief that they are being possessed by, or have access to, entities that are not extensions of themselves. Let us also accept as fact that the thoughts and ideas they are producing are inconsistent with their own personalities and knowledge.  Even so, neither of these two facts can allow us to conclude with any certainty that their explanations as to the source of their experiences are correct.

For one thing, the brain is a marvelous instrument of great wonder. Among its numerous mysteries is its capability to host multiple personalities in one person. These personalities can have different voices, ideas, ages and even physiological characteristics.

We can turn to traditional Psychiatry to help us contextualize channeling in more grounded perspectives. To do this, let’s take a quick look at the contemporary definition of Dissociative Identity Disorder:

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is defined in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as an identity disruption indicated by the presence of two or more distinct personality states (experienced as possession in some cultures), with discontinuity in sense of self and agency, and with variations in affect, behavior, consciousness, memory, perception, cognition, or sensory-motor functioning….Conditions similar to DID but with less-than-marked symptoms (e.g., subthreshold DID) are classified among “other specified dissociative disorders.

Western psychiatry pathologizes the mystical and spiritual experiences of channeling, seeing them as the result of anomalous brain activity. The claim that our spiritual experiences are due to anomalous brain activity appears to be correct given that with certain medications, these alternate states of consciousness can be suppressed. At the same time, these channels have succeeded because they are highly functional and extremely lucid individuals. Schucman was a psychologist at a research center connected with Columbia university. Roberts was an eloquent and prolific writer. The Hicks’ and Pursel have built self-help empires and have demonstrated great business acumen.

Psychiatry cannot account for a category of individual who may be sincerely experiencing “delusions,” and yet maintain a highly-functional cognitive capacity at the same time. Of course one alternative explanation for such individuals is that sane channels are simply liars, and they know it.

Another alternative explanation takes into account that the field of psychiatry itself is discursively constructed and makes sense only within rational and empirical medical discourse. What’s delusional to one person is an ancestral visitation to another.  Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist who studied schizophrenic patients across the world, helps illustrate this point. She found that social context was capable of altering “the course of the illness, its outcome, and even the structure of its symptoms.” Funnily enough, to understand the very nature of this complexity of mind and cognition, we might have to turn to  some of the channeled writings themselves!

How to Build a Cult

Samar Habib

Samar Habib is the creator of The Quantum Mind, an online course for optimizing the mind for health and wellness.

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APA Reference
Habib, S. (2019). How to Build a Cult. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 3 Jun 2019
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