Being able to push your followers—with a mere word, or a palm laid upon their sweaty, quivering foreheads—over that thin, Kool-Aid line toward self-inflicted pain and suffering, and sometimes death.
At that moment, when your followers melt in the palm of your hand like a wad of Silly Putty, you realize that all those years of hard work have finally paid off. The hours spent worshipping in musty basements underneath ever-churning washing machines. Entire weekends blathering at passersby on the sidewalk about doom and gloom, and the opening of the soul to the infinite divinity of the universe.
You have come a long way, baby. You—yes, YOU—are the one who released the handbrake from the eons-old human instinct for preservation of mind and body. You are the one who set your followers rolling down the hill of mass consciousness toward injury and death, all the while stoking the fires of karma and the crinkle of dollars in your pocket.
Many cult leaders achieve cult stardom only through the death of their followers—think Jim Jones in Jonestown, or Heaven’s Gate’s Marshall Applewhite. Some find legendary cult status even after they are dead—like Elvis Presley with his infinitely stylish Church of Elvisology, a cult based almost entirely upon tomb-crying and hip-shaking.
A few cult leaders, though, rally their followers to higher planes of existence not with toxic sugar water, UFOs, or booty-shaking rock and roll, but with a sword built of flesh and offered to unsuspecting newbies as the source of all creative energies—the apex of enlightenment waiting to be embraced by the warmth of the initiate’s nether regions.
These Are Not the Cults You Are Looking For
This is the realm of the yoga cults, the purveyors of Westernized, overly sexualized Tantric teachings. The lessons taught on and off the yoga mat are twisted and contorted—like so many asanas—to suit the urges of the guru, the divine teacher who sells his earthly sword as the pathway (poleway?) to enlightenment.
Sex and death, however, are shortsighted destinations along the road to cult stardom. Death achieves little (other than possibly the destruction of the reputation of a brand-name flavored beverage). What happens after you and your followers depart this mortal coil for the mother ship? Nothing much, as far as you are concerned. By taking the ultimate plunge, you abdicate your right to control your followers, which is the bread-and-butter of cult leaders everywhere.
Sex, on the other hand, seems like the epitome of the yellow brick road to cult notoriety. What could be better than a gaggle of followers lounging within your inner sanctum, while you probe their own inner sanctums? Sex, though, is cheap. Why go blue when you could achieve so much more? Most people enjoy having sex, so convincing someone to impale herself atop your sacred pole is like asking mall shoppers to sample Teriyaki sticks on a platter.
The real way to achieve cult superstardom is not through sex or death. We survived the apocalyptic end of the last millennium, so your cult needs to be designed with the modern age in mind. You need to embrace technology, and accept that you are competing for your followers’ attention with Angry Birds and the latest gossip on Twitter.
Cult Mastery in the Modern Age–Generation Y
It’s the dawning of the Age of Facebookarius. Get with the times. In order to succeed, your cult needs to be not only addictive and fun, but also subtle and marketable. Most of all, you need to turn your attention away from death as your cult’s main return-on-investment. Cold hard cash is where it’s at these days. Even for yoga gurus like Bikram Choudhury and Anusara’s John Friend, a bulging bank account is as much a sign of a healthy cult as is a bulging pole.
Addictive and fun are essential for any cult. Take Tony Robbins’ series of self-improvement seminars. People just can’t get enough of them. Even after paying $600 to $2000 for a chance to get second- or third-degree burns by walking on a bed of coals, people are eager to move on to the next “level.” Designing your cult like a video game—with levels to be conquered and friendly (usually) smack talk between participants—will keep your followers coming back for more.
Marketability is also important for the modern cult. Tony Robbins offers his followers an endless supply of merchandise to supplement their cult experience, including CDs and DVDs like the “Total Commitment Package” for $647 and the “Love & Passion: The Ultimate Relationship Program” for $249. All that’s missing is T-shirts and a smartphone app … oh wait, he already has those.
The last trait of a truly successful cult—subtle—is difficult to achieve. Despite the gullibility of the modern consumer, they are still wary of the hard sell. No one likes a shady used car dealer, so don’t go that route. Unslick your hair and take down the balloons outside your “retreat” center in the Fiji Islands. Your followers want the cult experience without realizing they are experiencing a cult.
Most of all, when you start to find the allure of the purple Kool-Aid too strong to resist, it’s time to stop focusing on achieving eternal bliss among the heavens and bring it back to earth, mainly the earth composed of dollar bills, large mansions, and gourmet meals.
Stuff: There is no greater gift you can give yourself.
Fire Walking to Inspire
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