By Arthur J. Deikman, M.D.

The Author

Dr Deikman graduated from Harvard and Harvard Medical School and became Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. He made a particular study of the relationship between the mystical tradition and modern psychotherapy. His publications include Personal Freedom (1976); The Observing Self: Mysticism and Psychotherapy (1982); The Wrong Way Home – Uncovering the Patterns of Cult Behavior in American Society (1986); and Them and Us – Cult Thinking and the Terrorist Threat (2003). He died in 2013.


People are joiners by nature and when they become interested in something often look for a group or try to start one focussed around their new pursuit. All groups have common elements, but groups devoted to spiritual or utopian aims have, or can have, an unusually powerful hold over participants because they aim to deliver life-changing experiences,. Dr Deikman made a lifelong study of how we may separate out authentic spiritual behaviour from that which is merely a magnified function of group dynamics. His conclusions, which are to be found in two books, The Observing Self and The Wrong Way Home, are also to be found, or at least represented in short form, in the following excerpt from his 1988 monograph on the subject. The full monograph can be downloaded and read from

Evaluating Spiritual and Utopian Groups

Spiritual and utopian groups will always exist because they answer to fundamental human needs. However, not all of those needs are spiritual or utopian and that is the problem.

Some groups may fulfil their announced goals, benefiting their members and society, others may turn into a nightmare of exploitation, fear and violence.

The need to evaluate

So it becomes necessary to have a way of evaluating groups, avoiding those that are, at best, ineffective and, at worst, injurious. In order to do this one must recognise that the experience of the truly spiritual is not a fantasy, a delusion or an emotional binge but a valid aspect of human life known to almost everyone to some degree.

Even today, in a culture that has embraced the scientific world view, most people have intimations of a larger, more perfect reality that transcends the material world.

This intangible perception has been shared by some of the principal physicists who established modem science, such as Newton and Einstein.

The intuition of the spiritual does not require esoteric, dramatic ecstasies; in its most convincing form it is part of everyday consciousness. There it is reflected in our awareness of “the good”.

Anna Karenina

Tolstoy describes this perception in his novel, Anna Karenina. At the end of the story, Levin, who has been struggling unsuccessfully to find meaning in life and is close to suicide, is talking to Theodore, a peasant worker, about two other peasants, Mityuka and Plato. Theodore comments: “Oh well, you see, people differ! One man lives only for his own needs: take Mityuka, who only stuffs his own belly, but Plato is an upright old man. He lives for his soul and remembers God.”

Theodore’s words spark a transformation in Levin’s understanding of his life. He sees that the value of his life has been linked to an inherent knowledge of goodness, a knowledge that lies outside reason: “I looked for an answer to my question. But reason could not give me an answer – reason is incommensurable with the question.”

“Life itself has given me the answer, in my knowledge of what is good and what is bad. And that knowledge I did not acquire in any way; it was given to me as to everybody, given because I could not take it from anywhere.”

“Where did I get it from? Was it by reason that I attained to the knowledge that I must love my neighbour and not throttle him? They told me so when I was a child, and I gladly believed it, because they told me what was already in my soul. But who discovered it? Not reason! Reason discovered the struggle for existence and the law that I must throttle all those who hinder the satisfaction of my desires. That is the deduction reason makes. But the law of loving others could not be discovered by reason, because it is unreasonable.”

Utopian Aims

Some groups that do not have explicit spiritual goals speak in terms of rehabilitative and therapeutic aims (e.g. teaching convicts to be responsible, law-abiding or curing emotional problems) or the more general idea of self-development, of actualising one’s potential. These groups may promote themselves as an ideal society that provides its members with all they need to live and develop in a wholesome, satisfying and creative way.

Here, too, we have the means for evaluating the authenticity and genuineness of such an organisation and its leader by the use of functional criteria. A good place to start is with Freud’s definition of a healthy individual as someone who is reasonably able to work and to love.

The simplicity of the definition is deceptive. For example, to be able to work a person must have sufficient impulse control to persevere until a given task is completed. It is also necessary that he or she be able to detach from emotions and fantasies to the extent necessary to perceive the task requirements accurately and carry them out.

Furthermore, for the work to be satisfying it must in some way be expressive of individuality, even if that expression is in terms of the quality of the work rather than in some unique design or process.

The ability to be individual, creative or innovative is not an automatic capacity of human beings. For some, it is achieved only after years of effort; for others, it never takes place.

How to love

The ability to love is also complex. We can understand that phrase to mean the capacity both for intimacy and for unselfish concern for another person. Intimacy is measured by the extent to which two people can be unguarded with each other, expressing their most personal feelings, thoughts, fantasies and wishes.

To do this requires three things: 1) the capacity for trust; 2) a basically positive evaluation of oneself; and 3) sufficient acceptance of one’s own thoughts, feelings and desires to be able to accept those of another without rejecting the other person or engaging in dis-identification: “How could you possibly have such (childish, cruel, sexist, filthy, selfish, etc.) thoughts!”

Unselfish concern requires the ability to set aside self-protective and acquisitive strategies – and that is not easy. Thus, to work and to love is an achievement often requiring considerable learning and effort.

Despite the wide ground that Freud’s definition covers, it is helpful to supplement it by looking at health from another perspective, that of autonomy.

Standing alone

Autonomy is measured by the capacity to stand alone; it is the mark of adulthood. To stand alone means to be able to decide for oneself what one should and will do. It does not mean amorality or lawlessness but, rather, “the experience of being the author of the law you obey”.

To have that experience, one must be willing to give up the idea that there are Big People to whom one looks (up) for answers and to whom one assigns responsibility and power.

Autonomy exists only in an eye-level world. In contrast to autonomy, dependency is the readiness to structure one’s relationships, both real and fantasised, on the model of parents and children.

Although the dependent person is assumed to be the one who takes the role of the child, a person who plays the role of the parent is also participating in the fantasy and has not reached a sufficient stage of autonomy to give the fantasy up.

Three functions

With these three functions in mind – work, love and autonomy – we are in a position to assess the validity of organisations that aim at competency in any or all of these areas.

Just as in the case of spiritual groups, it is important that a prospective member be able to discriminate between effective and ineffective organisations. The least ill effect of the latter is to waste time and resources; the worst effect is to retard and damage the psychological growth of those participating in them. This is especially true of groups that set themselves up as utopian communities within which their members are expected to live their entire lives.

Many groups are successful in achieving improvement in the basic work skills of their members. They offer support, behavioural contracts, attention rewards from the leader, and a ready-made work structure – all of which contribute to the ability to carry out tasks and be productive. Indeed, since the work performed by the members is in most cases the source of income for the group and its leader, it usually receives top priority and may, in fact, be the only priority – apart from recruitment – no matter what else may be said to the contrary.

Individuality as a threat

Unfortunately for individuality, its expression through a member’s work is not really necessary for the economic success of the group. Since individuality is also perceived as a threat to group cohesiveness, it is seldom encouraged.

Individuality requires autonomy and when it comes to achieving autonomy the requirements are more difficult than in the case of basic work skills. This is due to the fact that the very thing that is often most attractive to potential members – a charismatic leader – tends to accentuate dependency.

When leaders exploit this situation by making promises of what they will bestow through their power or largesse, it is clear that autonomy is not likely to be achieved.

Pressure towards conformity to group standards and ideals, inhibition of critical thinking and reliance on the magic of the leader are also factors working in the wrong direction.


One of the common signs that the development of autonomy is being impeded rather than assisted is the aping of the leader in dress or manner. The basic difficulty here is that the authority of the group and the leader tends to be challenged by autonomous individuals and such confrontations are seldom welcomed.

Despite these problems, it is possible for a group to enhance autonomy. If it does not inhibit or punish challenge and criticism, if it refuses to play parent to its members and if it discourages their magical expectations, it can help reach that goal.

Otherwise, it is likely to be a hindrance.

The goal of intimacy is also not easy to attain. Because issues of trust are strongly based on earlier life experience, therapeutic processes are often required to bring about improvement in that area. Furthermore, the group and the leader must sanction the development and maintenance of strong emotional ties between members, “pair bonds”, if members are to have the opportunity to learn how to be close.

Conflicting loyalties

It is a fact, however, that the power of the leader and the sense of security of the group is diminished by strong pair formation because it sets up conflicting loyalties. This has been illustrated by those who managed to leave powerful exploitive cults.

In many cases it was the competing needs of children or the love for a spouse that finally brought about the break with the group. Arranged marriages; the breaking of relationships by order of the leader or the group; pressure towards promiscuity or chastity; sexual relationships with the leader; interference with bonds to children and to parents – all these are signs that individual intimacy is being sacrificed to increase the members’ ties to the group and the leader.

Since the group and the leader together constitute a parent-child structure, neither adult intimacy nor autonomy are fostered by such policies but are impeded.

In fact, what often takes place is a regression of psychosexual development. From one point of view, this is not surprising. After all, for many converts the last thing they want is the complex demands of adult sexuality and true intimacy, to say nothing of real autonomy.

False haven

The organisation may function as a haven and the restricted relationships within the quasi-sibling group may well be a relief after the difficulties the members had been encountering prior to joining.

That this is often the case is suggested by research that found that the fewer social ties a convert had before joining, the more likely that he or she would remain in the organisation.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with a haven or a moratorium for people wishing to regroup their forces, heal their wounds or solve their personality problems before proceeding further with their lives.

However, to be therapeutic a group must not only comfort, it must help resolve its members difficulties and move them further along the development path. Fixation at the level of a sibling group is non-therapeutic.

People leaving such ineffective or exploitive organisations are likely to be in the same developmental phase they were in at the time they joined – only worse off because they are older and more out of step with the life of their contemporaries.

Lack of skills

There are two further reasons why progress in the ability to be intimate does not take place in most religious, spiritual or New Age utopian groups.

The first is that it requires therapeutic skill and experience to be able to uncover and clarify the barriers to intimacy that may exist in any one individual.

Few people in such organisations have the necessary skill and it is rare for time to be given to formal psychotherapeutic activities.

Secondly, resolving the conflicts that interfere with intimacy requires that the person become aware of transference reactions; that is, inappropriate feelings and attitudes derived from childhood relationships.

These feelings tend to be experienced towards parental and sibling surrogates without the person being aware that that is what is taking place. To clarify such misperceptions requires that group members examine their attitudes toward the leader and towards the quasi-sibling group.

Such an examination is likely to diminish the emotional bonds that maintain and contribute to the power of the leader and the organisation. For this reason, authoritarian organisations are not usually advocates of psychotherapy.

‘No organisation can be pure’

Any organisation that purports to be a complete or ideal society must be capable of providing the means for its members to progress in the areas of work, love and autonomy. Otherwise, the organisation is functioning as a haven, nursery, business, or summer camp, but not as a society that enables its members to mature and make their individual contribution in the world.

The fact that a small society may be economically successful and have many members does not make it ideal, spiritual, therapeutic or even harmless.

It must be acknowledged that no organisation can be pure. No matter how skilled the leader, no matter how sincere the group members, human imperfection will manifest itself to some extent.

Any group will tend to be exclusive and dependent; leaders are not omniscient and they all have distinct personalities. The spiritual traditions have been well aware that organisations in the world partake of its imperfections.

The Celestial Apple

Here is a story from the Sufi tradition that deals with this reality: The Celestial Apple. Ibn-Nasr was ill and, although apples were out of season, he craved one. Hallaj suddenly produced one. Someone said: “This apple has a maggot in it. How could a fruit of celestial origin be so infested?” Hallaj explained: “It is just because it is of celestial origin that this fruit has become affected. It was originally not so, but when it entered this abode of imperfection it naturally partook of the disease which is characteristic here”.

Human activity is always flawed. Nevertheless, there is a difference between an apple with a maggot in it and one that is rotten. A small area of imperfection can be isolated, it can be avoided and corrected. When corruption is pervasive the apple must be discarded.

It is expected that whatever personality flaws a teacher may possess, they will not be allowed to interfere with the teaching activity; certainly not to determine it. Whenever inappropriate group behaviour occurs it is to be noted and eliminated.


The important and obvious point is that the behaviour of the teacher and the group must contribute to achieving the stated goal. These considerations make possible a preliminary judgement of a leader or of a group. Such a judgement need not be an esoteric matter but one that is possible to a sufficiently sophisticated observer.

It is true that much of what a genuine spiritual teacher or a New Age leader/therapist might do could be quite incomprehensible or misunderstood by an outsider, but the basic functional relationships I have outlined will hold and provide a basis for making a judgment.

Furthermore, there is no evading this assessment; indeed, we make judgments of groups all the time, whether we wish to or not. We decide whether to join or not to join, whether to support or to discourage, and it is necessary that we do so, both for ourselves and for others who look to us for guidance in these matters.

As I discussed earlier, the unsatisfied hunger for spiritual fulfilment may take highly inappropriate forms and lead people to embrace organisations and leaders whose destructive activities can be extreme.

In the case of less pernicious groups, precious time and resources are squandered and the person may be left with a barren and cynical outlook. For this reason alone it is necessary that we judge the legitimacy of a group and its leader.

Protection is not the only issue. If the mystics are correct, each of us has a need to develop our own capacity to perceive the fundamental nature of the reality in which we live and the self that is at the core of our being.

Valid mystical schools exist to bring about that perceptual development. It is of considerable importance that we become able to detect the existence of genuine groups amid all the counterfeits so that progress in this area can be made.

The functional criteria I have presented permit at least a provisional assessment of spiritual and utopian organisations that is not heavily biased by the observer’s social class, religion or political affiliation, because it makes use of criteria based on the spiritual literature itself, as well as on our psychodynamic understanding of individuals and groups.

Since judge we must, we may as well judge skilfully, as befitting members of a culture in which our knowledge can provide a basis for our doing so.