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On Intentional Communities And "Cults"

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

Both in explaining aikido to folks, and in my other life, in conversations about the astrology of the next few years, I've been getting into a lot of conversations lately about high-demand organizations, or "cults." And I want to take a moment to be clear about what I think makes a cult and how not to make our community into one.

As Ithaca Aikikai builds a membership, and folks start to care about this community, it’s important to be transparent and curious about what this dojo community is and how we want to behave in it together for a very simple reason. Aikido is a budo–a martial art that is aimed at self mastery, polishing the practitioner’s spirit through challenging and difficult work. The nature of that work is spiritual and it requires a substantial amount of trust, both in the form of a strong teacher-student relationship, and among students. And, well, spiritual communities and student teacher relationships can easily cause harm. When they do, thinking people start calling this kind of community a “cult” or a “high-demand organization” and that harsh assessment is absolutely earned. I have spent significant time in high-demand organizations, both as a yogi and as an aikidoka. We certainly do not want to make that here! At the same time, when we assess something as a cult, we push it away. And, well, again, as someone who is pretty smart and has found myself in a couple of communities that have problematic authority figures who wield power in harmful ways, I think it’s important to be curious instead of reflexively assume that this could never become a cult. Instead, it might be more spiritually safe to begin by considering the possibility that any “intentional community” could slide into more of a “cult.”

When I say “intentional community,” I mean a group of people who are choosing to come together to do things differently than they do in the rest of the world. The dojo is a sacred space in which we should always be considering our surroundings, readiness, awareness, and attention to the details that make us safe and respectful training partners. That’s why we all wear the same outfit. That’s why we bow, both to the space itself and to the image of O Sensei, and to one another. That’s why we present our bodies clean, with no sharp edges like fingernails or jewelry for others to get caught on or to hurt ourselves on. Every member of the dojo is a beginner right now, so these rules and ways of being are being considered almost as we would consider them in a kid’s class–as part of the fun of playing “martial artist.” And they, like softer rolls and knowledge of techniques, will deepen and expand over time. Cleaning and care of the space has already permeated the consciousness of some of us in beautiful, expansive ways that are exciting to see. The classes will get quieter. It will start to feel weird not to bow before we get on the mat. And because we are not perfect, we will start judging our behavior more, or looking at our partners and judging their performance on this part of dojo life instead of minding our own actions. This is ultimately what participation in an intentional community is for. It is a mirror that you hold up to yourself so that you can see where you need polish. As an aikido student, I have hated the emphasis on cleaning so much that I had to make a point of cleaning the things that made me the angriest to clean. This is still an important part of my training. I have also seen people learn how to rely less on being seen as an individual by submitting to the uniformity of the dojo. I have seen people do excellent work on just being uncomfortable in silence instead of cracking a joke. I have seen people who are always late figure out how to be on time, and in this see that being late everywhere is more psychological, and more damaging to them, than they thought it was.

This is what intentional community is for. The Japanese word for it is kaizen. We are all here to pay continuous attention, make continuous small improvements, and walk out of this sacred space more skillful people. And it doesn’t happen unless we create a relatively taut environment. We do this by taking all the things around our training, from laying down the mats to how to pronounce onegaishimasu seriously enough to feel like we can sustain our attention.

Now, I have a theory about cults. I think they’re co-created. They absolutely require a leader who will take too much power to act as a catalyst, but they also require students’ participation. This is so true that I have belonged to spaces that are pretty healthy, but are also a "cult" that exists only in one or two students’ heads. This mindset of just one or two members has surprisingly damaging effects within the community.

Here’s what I mean. Say in Dojo X that the sensei had a habit of asking students to buy her an expensive coffee before class. That is a tiny abuse of power. It directs membership resources toward the teacher and not at the group as a whole, and it’s not straightforward. Is it paying the teacher? Is it a favor? An honor? A rotating expense in addition to membership? There are a few ways to deal with that as a membership, and each of those paths lead to different consequences. If the membership deals with it more or less openly, perhaps by asking the teacher whether she wants to get paid in order to teach, saying no, that they can't afford it, or wondering aloud if this is some Japanese custom that they don’t know, there’s a real chance that the teacher can see that she’s abusing power and just ask for what she needs. After all, students do have a lot of power in an aikido dojo! Training alone sucks, and a dojo without a membership will not be open very long. When students take the power they have, and expressions of power that don’t feel unsupportive are questioned, everybody more or stays in intentional community. It's a state of dynamic equilibrium.

But what happens when that abuse of power confirms an existing narrative in the students’ minds that they are powerless or adrift, and they just go along with it? Many of us, I certainly do, walk around with a narrative that says that I am worthless, a bad daughter, a ruiner of my parents' lives. There is no end to the destructive things some of us learn about ourselves and our worth as kids--this is part of human nature. It is more likely that the group will relate to something like a coffee request through this type of lens. Sometimes this turns into a forest fire. The teacher is a latent cult leader. The coffee was the first of many boundary violations, and she keeps pushing. Pretty soon people are buying her all kinds of stuff, and doing all kinds of other things for her, and things are feeling more and more abusive. A lot of myths form that validate both the abuse and membership in the group, and they are all grounded in that inherent worthlessness that started the fire. You stay in it until you figure out that you need to leave. But the dry brush of past pain in the student body does not need to be met with the lit cigarette of a latent cult leader to do harm. I’ve also seen students not use their power to set boundaries around understandable mistakes teachers have made with power. And I've seen students attend to the reasonable, group oriented activities that make a community intentional, like cleaning, with that personal history of worthlessness front and center. This act of staying in powerlessness instead of working through it will absolutely grind down the spirit of the student that is suffering, and occasionally take others down with them, even in an otherwise healthy environment.

The thing that keeps an intentional community like this safe is constant reassertion that power is not monolithic, not even in a dojo. Yes. My job as the teacher is to challenge the students and shape the practices that make the community taut and intentional. And without the students, I do that alone. I am given that power, I earn it with trust. Things will come up in the course of training that ignite old wounds and scripts all the time. Some students have already met their internal critics, or some old ideas about incapacity or maybe even worthlessness. And perhaps others have never struggled with being the bad or worthless one, and have met even more pernicious old scripts about entitlement, not needing polishing, or fixed limitations. We are here to work through these! And part of that work for many of us is to step into our actual power even if we feel totally powerless. This post is an invitation to speak if you feel powerless. I can't always promise to do the right thing--I am deeply fallible and human too. But I do promise to listen.

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