I just came out of a half a day run through what, right now, seems the most confusing documentary series I have seen in a while. Netflix launched, in March this year, Wild, Wild Country, a documentary series following the the Osho movement in the United States in the ’80s – well, Osho now, at that point Bhagwan – and the development of what, as he put it, is the only religion that humanity saw to die, Rajneeshism.
It came to me as a recommended watch and I was skeptical in the beginning. I will not go into the details of the film, no spoilers on this one, but I think there are some recurrent points in cult history that struck me and sparked a little wish to share my thoughts on them.
I do recommend watching this. I think it’s a fantastic work and I believe that the producers, directors and the whole crew working on this series did a great job, not only from fact transmitting point of view but also from managing the emotions of the public. They move the point of view so gracefully during the 6 parts of the series that you don’t realize how in the end you get such a faceted view and end up understanding more than just one of the parties involved.
I’m not going to go into the moral value of the experiment, nor give opinions on the situation. There were some elements, besides all of the hard facts, that touched me and that I believe should be explored in more depth. They probably already were and I didn’t stumble upon the right materials, but if not, one can just hope that maybe Buzzfeed will tackle this in their season 2 of Follow This.
The lack of belonging
Throughout each of the episodes, you can see snippets from people who were part of the movement talking about what it meant for them. Everybody, no exception, mentioned the fact that they felt like they finally belonged. And we are not talking about a bunch of 10 people sitting in a circle and talking about how society does not accept them. There were tens of thousands of people, direct members of the group and hundreds of thousands who were simply sympathizing with the ideas put forward. There weren’t just the outcasts and the homeless, the weird and the unwanted. There were people who knew success in their life, either from a career perspective or a personal, family related one. There were people of every skin tone, religion, gender, nationality, ethnicity – you name it. And they all felt like they finally belonged.
If we come to think about it, for the past 50 years society has been on a steep evolution line. Cities evolve, population grows, new mentalities developed. We’re now more connected via all of the devices that follow us everywhere. But at the same time, because maintaining a conversation has never been so easy, our lives are more disrupted than ever. Because we have our friends, our family, our lives at the tips of our fingertips it is easier for us to push to the side meeting face to face. Having all of our relationships contained in a screen means we can at any time prioritize or deprioritize them, by just activating the „Silent” mode on our phones. And in this world where everything comes easy, human contact is what we forget we need.
And from some points of view, I think this is the bridge that cults offer. An easy way out to human contact, without the worries of day to day life. I was watching a TED Talk some time ago, which unfortunately I cannot find right now, on the concept of tribes and how in the end, looking at how people in our generation express their feelings and deal with life in general, we are experiencing a lack of tribes. Or, to put it more bluntly, we are very far from the concept of community that we all grew up as knowing is the standard.
(Another TED talk on the topic of what makes a community)
I had a conversation recently on the topic of bubbles and how they function. And how comfortable it is to stay in a bubble because that’s actually where we grew up in. And where we continue to function, to a lesser extent. But growing up in a family, in a small community, meant being exposed to limited experiences that were filtered by the leaders of the clan – in this case, the parents. It meant that we saw things through their lenses, which for some of us meant growing up in the ideal world where love conquers all, where people stick together no matter what, where communities don’t get born and die but they just exist. And then heading into the adult life you come to realize that that’s just one option of the multitude of scenarios your path might take you through and it’s not always easy to cope with the idea that you might never experience the safety net of the bubble you grew up in. Because, in the end, a lot of our perceptions and needs come from early childhood and from the way we were brought up – of course, more meat comes on our psychological skeleton as we go through life – and we tend to search for that throughout our life.
Of course, society moves forward. In my perception, this lack of belonging started 30-40 years ago, and we evolved a lot in the means through which we deal with all around us. But the lack remains, and if then a symptom of this was the boom of cults now more and more people figure their own way of going through life and dealing with their emotions, what happened in the ’70s-’80s was probably just a phase one of our constant disconnection from the world and our fight against something that at that point we couldn’t define.
The fear of rejection
I had moments when I was shocked, going through the series, on the easiness with which some of the Rajneeshism cult leaders were brushing aside some of the horrid things they put into action, as they believed they did them for the better of the community. But I think for me the big glass of water thrown at my face was in very short footage from there.
When realizing the extent of the legal troubles the clan was into, with religion and state being intertwined in the way the community was ruled, Osho gathers his followers and tells them that his intention is not on leading a cult, but a community. That they should give up on all elements that were bringing them to that concept, from the red only clothes to the jewelry they were wearing and just be themselves again, as this is what he values most. The next scene cuts to a lady saying how excited she is she can finally get a turquoise sweater.
And that was the moment when I realized that besides the openness and sense of community, there were also the norms and rules that they were following that made them feel as part of something and that going past them, they lived with the fear of facing rejection from the group. And something as simple as wearing a sweater in your favorite color was unacceptable because it meant stowing away from the route mentality of the clan. And in the end, that’s the basic functioning mechanic of any entity in society, be it official or unofficial.
It’s the combination of feeling accepted and at the same time having clear limits to this acceptance that makes us feel we are part of something. And, as some would put it, a combination of heaven and hell:
So in the end I am not yet sure what’s the benefit I got from gathering all of this information. For sure it made me think of some things in a different light. Or not different, but maybe it shined a bit brighter on them and I was able to decompose some topics better than before. I always like when I experience something that immediately gives me the feeling I want to write about something. Not necessarily for the sake of sharing my opinion with the world, but to help myself put things in order and perspective.
I feel like I’ve been in a bit of a trance for the last 45 minutes while drafting this article. I didn’t even touch my tonic water – yes, I am one of those odd people that drink tonic water just like that – and did not even realize the neighbors’ kids are again playing in the backyard and yelling like there is no tomorrow.
As a closing, as stated before, I do think you should give this show a watch. Maybe not a binge watch, like I did, because for sure it triggers some thoughts while going for it, but it’s definitely an interesting diagnosis on the concept of cults. And definitely, a nice way to spend several evenings.
To leave things on a positive note, I’m linking an interview of Ma Anand Sheela, Osho’s secretary and her very direct way of dealing with questions: