It's striking how hard group situations can be after being in a cult. I wrote last week about attending a group for former cult-members and it must have sounded like I had mastered the art of collective social situations. Not so. I still balk at everything from church to staff meetings to Weight Watchers pep sessions.
Weight Watchers is a good example. Everyone gathers to hear a motivational talk for the coming week. How to avoid fat foods and bulk up on healthy ones. How to exercise so you sweat. How to make the most your special W.W. system with points and all. How many points do Girl Scout cookies have anyway? All benign things.
I sit with a room full of overweight people, ladies mostly - or ladies who THINK they're overweight - and squirm in my chair as the "facilitator" whoops the crowd into a frenzy of enthusiastic starvation. She flips the flip chart and quotes inspirational sayings from such mental giants as Earl Nightingale and Dale Carnegie. "Yes, we can, yes, we can." It sometimes feels like an Obama rally.
But I'm better than I used to be. There was a time, shortly after I left The Way, that sitting in a room of fervent believers, like, um, church, for instance, would trigger my anxiety through the roof. When the minister would quote the Bible, it would be like someone shouting "Incoming!" to a Vietnam vet. I'd want to dive under the nearest pew and cover my ears. But now I'm a relatively content churchgoer. So what's changed?
First of all, I can CHOOSE when to go and when not to go to church (I average about once a month.) I can CHOOSE to leave also if I feel uncomfortable. Not so in The Way. There I was under the constant threat of becoming "a greasespot on the highway of life" if I disagreed. I also have learned to LISTEN to my inner voice. If a group gives me the heebie-geebies, I split. Fast.
My boss at work is a cool guy. He's a forty-something psychiatrist who studies Buddhism, practices Tai Chi and cooks gourmet food. He's absolutely astounding with the inmates. He also attends the Zen Mountain Monastery and knows my history. He assures me that the monastery is not a cult. "As long as it's 'us' and not 'them', " he says, "I will go. As soon as they start playing the 'better than' game, I'm out."
That seems to be a good distinction. Whether it's Weight Watchers, church or a Buddhist Meditation group, as long as the group tolerates differences, mine for instance, and is inclusive of other people, I'm okay with it. We don't have to buy into EVERYTHING they're saying. We can pick and chose. If the shoe fits, we wear it. If it doesn't, we don't blame our foot. We look for a different shoe! Some groups can be so rigid, you're bad if you're slightly unique, which we all are. It's their way or the highway. I'll take the highway - even if it means being alone. It's not always comfortable, but it certainly is safer.