[This article was written for the Hearthstone Community Church's February 2014 newsletter.]
The fields of magic, occultism and alternative belief systems are littered with minefields of dubious groups led by shady leaders attempting to fleece the gullible and the naïve for profit and pleasure. In a fair universe, the seeker after such things would be accompanied by a robot made out of metal drums and inner tubes, who would chant, “Danger, Seeker, Danger!” whenever one encountered a group or leader that one should avoid signing up with. Unfortunately, we do not live in a fair universe, and must rely on our own common sense to guide us though the fields littered with explosive cow patties.
Being an eager seeker of the strange and marvelous, I have encountered more than my fair share of dubious groups and shady leaders…some of which I have signed up with, only to regret it later. Given such experience, I have learned over the years to listen to my inner paranoid android – at least, pause long enough to think twice before signing on the dotted line. On a good day, I will run screaming to the hills upon encountering the warning signs. On a bad day, well, let’s just say that hindsight is twenty/twenty.
An item that is often on people’s warning lists is money – as in the group or leader charges money for one to be a member or student. Honestly, the exchange of money does not even make my top thirteen. There is this idea that teachers and writers of occult lore should not charge for lessons or books, that they should give their knowledge away freely to all that ask for it without collecting a single dime. This idea overlooks the simple fact that we live in a world where money is an absolute necessity.
We would not ask a plumber to work for free; we do not expect people to give us food and gasoline for free; yet for some reason, we think that our spiritual and magical leaders should provide their services and products for free. Too many of our spiritual and magical leaders rely on food stamps and food banks to ensure that they have something to eat; too many live in hovels; too many can’t afford health insurance. And don’t get me started on the occult writers, who quite honestly would make more money flipping burgers for minimum wage.
The brutal truth of the matter is that occult teachers and writers are spending time to provide a service. They are using up time that could be spent doing more profitable things. At the very least, we should make sure that they are not paying for the rent for the meeting spots, and the cost of candles, cakes and ale, out of their own pockets…if only because that is the equivalent of adding insult to injury.
Now that is not to say that there is no such thing as a teacher or group that charges too much for their services and products. Such leaders and groups do exist. Exactly what is a fair rate to charge is beyond the scope of this essay – and is something that each seeker must determine for themselves. But one should not complain about the lack of qualified teachers and spiritual ministers, if one had ensured that no one can survive on what we are willing to offer them.
Now, onto my top thirteen signs that a leader and their group might be bad news…
13. Boredom – this one may seem strange to put on a list of danger signs. But one of the things that I learned over the years is that if a leader bores me, odds are that the group is just not worth my time. This is especially true if the information just seems to be recycled or is repeated over and over. A boring leader leads to the membership creating drama to occupy themselves. A boring leader also indicates that the upper levels of a group are empty of actual content. A boring leader is the outer sign that a group has no spiritual or magical spark to keep it alive – it is just a group living a ghastly existence, not realizing that it is already dead.
12. Lack of a sense of humor and humility – a leader without a sense of humor and who full of hubris scares me. It is especially scaring if they try to pretend that they have a sense of humor and a modicum of humbleness. At the very least, a good teacher needs to be able to laugh about themselves. If a teacher cannot handle you making jokes about them – run away quickly! And if you catch them pretending to be humble, be warned that they might be a sociopath.
11. Sexual misdeeds – if you hear stories about the leader sleeping with student after student, get out of there! I am naturally suspicious of any group that stresses that they teach sex magic. Even if you are not the preferred gender of the leader’s advances, sexual misbehavior is always a sign that there is a high cost to advancing in an organization.
10. Lawyers and trademarks – there is only one reason to have a trademark, and that is if you are trying to create a monopoly; there is only one reason for an occult organization to regularly use a lawyer, and that is to beat other organizations into extinction in a court of law. Everyone occasionally needs a lawyer – it is another thing to be in one court battle after another. And the only reason to have a monopoly is so that you can charge more than fair market value.
9. Non-disclosure statements and/or absolute secrecy – having to sign a non-disclosure statement to join a group or attend a seminar, or insisting on absolute secrecy for one’s group just screams that there are misdeeds going on behind closed doors. In my mind, the only things that should be absolutely secret are the identities of members in sensitive occupations (ex. school teachers) and even they can be referred to by their mottos or magical names.
8. Claims of superior lineage and ultra-secret knowledge – it is one thing to claim to be the best informed group, and to have a myth of unbroken wisdom from the dawn of history; it is another thing to insist that it is absolutely true, and seek to silence anyone who says otherwise. These types of claims are especially troubling when combined with the aforementioned non-disclosure statements and absolute secrecy, and tend to be used to justify the use of secrecy to protect the superior wisdom, which more often than not, came directly from a book or the creative imagination of the leader, while the secrecy is actually being used to cover up the misdeeds of the leader.
7. Use of the degree system to maintain control – while the use of a degree system can help ensure that information is taught in a structured format, the unpleasant reality is that it can also be used to maintain control of an organization. The aforementioned sexual misdeeds often come as the result of the promise of special higher level teaching in exchange for sexual favors. And the degree system can lead to a lot of internal politics as the more ambitious people use favors and rumors to ensure that they advance; this often leads to the most knowledgeable and spiritual advanced members, who are not as good at playing politics, being stuck in the lower degrees.
6. Hiding of dirty laundry – any group or leader that hides its dirty laundry is bad news. Every group and every leader has committed mistakes; but if they do not admit to them, and in fact, do their best to erase all evidence that mistakes happened, it just leads to the possibility that they will become repeat offenders. In fact, the hiding of the dirty laundry may actually be evidence that repeat offenses may have already occurred. When one sees a perfect group or leader, one should scamper away, for there is no such creature.
5. Does not cite sources – magical and spiritual knowledge does not grow in a vacuum. A leader or teacher who never mentions who taught them or the books that they have read is guilty of trying to conceal their past. If they try to conceal their past, then what else are they hiding? Especially troublesome are those who claim that all their knowledge comes from Secret Chiefs that only they are spiritually and magically advanced enough to meet.
4. Exclusivity as a requirement for training – while there are good reasons to focus on one school of occult wisdom at a time, any group that makes it a rule that you are not allowed to be a member of other groups is trying to ensure that you do not compare their wisdom with that possessed by other schools. A good teacher does not care if a student is a student of another system, for they know that people drop the less valuable options as they advance in knowledge.
3. Claims lack of resources as an excuse for elitism – first off, it is a danger sign whenever a group states that the occult is not for the masses, but only for the elite. In all honesty, the elite are not drawn to the type of group that has to make such claims. The elite of today’s world are too busy making money. Second, the lack of resources that limit the ability of a group to deal with large numbers of members is always the sheer lack of high level members. If a group claims hundreds of members, but you can count the number of high level members on one hand, there are reasons to suspect that members are not being promoted for purely political and control reasons. Material resources necessary to deal with large numbers of members have never been cheaper – YouTube, online groups, and print-on-demand books can all be utilized to provide the service provided that the group has enough high level members to pick up the work load.
2. All expulsions are the other person’s problem – in no world are the problems that break up a relationship, even that of a student towards their teacher, purely the fault of the student. If a leader claims that every expulsion was the result of the student with no fault falling upon the teacher, then you know that the teacher is lying. This is especially troublesome when the brightest students are the ones being expelled. In a properly functioning system, occult students drop out when they reach the limit of their potential; they do not get expelled. Expulsion is supposed to be reserved for breaches of ethics and symptoms of sociopathic behavior, not simply to ensure that one remains at the top of the pyramid.
And the number one reason to run away…drum roll please…the teacher or leader is eager to have new students or wants large number of members. This is the ultimate danger sign where your shiny metallic friend should quit chanting “Danger!” and just drag you out of the room before you get burnt. The only people who volunteer eagerly when someone asks if someone can teach them are people who have never taught before, or those who plan on abusing the student-teacher relationship on some level. No true magical or spiritual teacher wants large number of followers; it interferes with the work, and guarantees that one’s own personal growth grinds to a halt. Yes, there are people who teach the occasional workshop who are good teachers, but workshops are short term commitments. In fact, anyone who is truly qualified to be a spiritual or magical teacher is going to do their best to make it hard to become their student – they practically force their students to drag them kicking and screaming to the chalk board…after all, teaching is the heaviest responsibility that one can shoulder, with not only one’s own spiritual advancement at risk, but one’s student’s as well.