Prayer Itself Isn’t Toxic, but Spiritual Leaders Sometimes Can Be

For the past few weeks, I’ve been reading Amanda Montell’s Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism. I’m two-thirds through reading it. In this post, I will discuss two points within the book: the first my critique of how Montell describes prayer, the second some comments I have on toxic leaders in spiritual communities abusing the concept of reincarnation to control people. Overall, my experience with the book so far is good, and I do recommend it to anyone in a New Religious Movement.


Montell quotes heavily from someone with a utilitarian religious studies view for whom prayer is apparently a psychological trick to entice people to believe someone is answering, and the hypothesis is that the trick works on people because we are speaking to something and our brains start to perceive it as real before we fall down the slippery slope of delusion (with descriptive vocabulary describing something that sounds like the very toxic elements within charismatic evangelism, like some of the crazy s–t Jim Bakker says) and spiritual bypassing.

Obviously, as a Platonizing polytheist, I hold to a very different view of prayer — it habituates us to the divine, and if we approach prayer while also working on other things we need to address in our lives (like mental health, financial security, and ensuring that we are fighting for a healthy civic community), we have less risk of spiritual bypassing. Habituation includes things like tuning into the cycles of the seasons, the moon, and life stages as much as it includes things like sustained, frequent devotional activity for Gods and daimones (the intermediary spirits of various kinds). If one wants to get into the weeds, I recommend reading this blog post that discussed how Proclus approaches prayer in his Timaeus commentary.

However, I’d like to pull out one of the quotations:

It is to this reversion that prayer offers an enormous contribution by means of the ineffable symbols of the gods, which the Father of the souls has sowed in them. Prayer attracts the beneficence of the gods towards itself. It unifies those who pray with the gods who are being prayed to. It also links the Intellect of the gods with the formulations of those who pray, inciting the will (boulêsis) of those who contain the goods in a perfect way within themselves to share them unstintingly. Prayer is the creator of divine persuasion and establishes all which is ours in the gods.

Proclus, Timaeus Book II, 210.30-211.8

— primarily to point to the language about unifications and links. This is also what I mean by habituate. There is definitely something happening at an embodied mental/brain level — after all, the body is our material vehicle, so why wouldn’t there be? — and this ultimately functions to broaden the soul’s awareness and focus it on Gods and divinities. The efficacy with which we can do this mirroring and sympathetic technique impacts how effectively we receive the benefits from the Gods, as all goodness flows from the Gods without cease into whichever circumstances are most open, like water flowing downhill from mountain streams. Sometimes, what we think is a good is not actually good for us, though, and in Plato’s dialogues, it is recommended again and again to pray in more generic terms.

Proclus also provides a survey of different types of prayer.

Now, this quotation was originally in paragraphs, but I am going to attempt to apply WordPress’s bulleted list feature to make it more readable. Unfortunately, WordPress’ new editor won’t allow me to put lists in blockquotes even when I do it in HTML mode, so I’m going to set off this bit at his Timaeus commentary, Book II, 213.20-214.12, with some separators:

  1. There are modes in accordance with the genera and species of the gods, prayer then being either creative or purificatory or vivificatory.
    1. It is creative, for example, [when it takes place] on behalf of rain and wind. The creative gods are in fact the causes of the generation of these, and the prayers of the Eudanemoi at Athens are directed towards these gods.
    2. Prayers are purificatory when they avert pestilential diseases or all manner of pollution, such as [prayers] as we find inscribed in temples.
    3. They can be vivificatory, as in the case of prayers on behalf of the growth of crops which worship the causes of the growth of life that are superior to us.
    4. There are also perfective prayers, because it is towards these classes of [perfecting] gods that they lift us up. The person who makes any changes to this separation (krisis) of prayers deviates from the correctness of [conducting] prayers.
  2. There are also modes in accordance with the differences of those who pray. For there is
    1. philosophical prayer and
    2. theurgic prayer, and, beside these, there is
    3. institutional prayer according to the ancestral practices of communities.
  3. There are also modes in accordance with the objects for which the prayers take place,
    1. in the first place on behalf of the salvation of soul,
    2. secondly on behalf of the sound constitution of the body, and
    3. thirdly those which are completed on behalf of external goods.
  4. And there are modes in accordance with the division of the times at which we perform our prayers, distinguishing the various kinds of prayer
    1. according to the seasons of the year, or
    2. according to the chief points of the solar revolution, or
    3. according to other such [heavenly] connections.

We can see in the extended quotation above that there is a robust way of thinking about prayer categories. 1c is the type of prayer I recall engaging in as a teen when the pagan organic apple farmer had a fertility petition in his fields for the growth of his crops. An example at 2a is Proclus’ prayer at the beginning of his Parmenides commentary. I would place the “Prayer to All of the Gods III” that I composed in the 2b category, but it is also the place where we would put intense devotional activity for specific Gods. 2c represents both institutional bureaucracy of prayer and the “customs according to ancestors” that Platonists are keen to stress, especially as Christianity was setting itself up against endemic religions of various peoples and forcing people to give up their endemic ways of worshipping Gods. We can see all of 3a-c in surviving prayers from Proclus like the one he gives to Athene or the one for the Gods of holy wisdom. 4a-c is what I mentioned when talking about tuning into cycles. One thing I do not do, but many others do, is the part of 4c that involves timing specific prayers to where the planets are or the planetary hours of day/night. This is done to increase symbolic receptivity of specific prayer acts, just like how we might pick a specific incense scent, candle color, or other type of offering and/or wear specific types of clothing to set up the right mood.

In sum, a sterile, utilitarian definition that emphasizes what happens when prayer gets assimilated to power plays, narcissistic leaders, spiritual bypassing, and toxic cults does not do justice to what prayer actually is. I’d like to close off this section by showing a video from Cut about prayer in various religious traditions.

Now for toxic leaders.

Reincarnation and Toxicity in Spiritual Teachers

This was prompted by seeing something on Twitter that triggered an association with something I read in Cultish. In one chapter, a former member of the cult 3HO (which is associated with kundalini yoga) described the abusive dynamics she experienced in the cult. One of them? They were instructed in new types of language, or new definitions for common terms in our society. It was heartbreaking to read how language and ideology were twisted to make people live in fear. The specific tweet I saw was a joke about old souls being people who haven’t left samsara yet, and it pointed out that it meant that “old souls” don’t have their shit together; in 3HO, similar arguments are used to scare people, and often into thinking that the tiniest human mistakes could have devastatingly negative consequences for their future incarnations or their chances of whatever enlightenment is in their tradition. To 3HO, old soul describes someone who failed to thrive/grow and is thus still here. In American culture writ large, by contrast, old soul is a compliment for people who seem wise beyond their years. I want to address this specific reincarnation-related fearmongering before circling back to toxic spiritual teachers.

Definitely, in Platonism, we see similar language used, albeit in a muted way: we are encouraged to acquire critical thinking skills and learn how to make good incarnation decisions, and the goal is also union with the Gods and a flight from embodiment after a few lifetimes of work. I don’t know why a group would cross the line from a positive outlook about the future into tyrannical fearmongering (about what happens if one f–ks up) designed to control people — but that is why 3HO is a cult and Platonism isn’t.

Partial souls (which we are, according to Platonism) descend periodically into generation. We each have different descent/ascent cycle lengths — unique patterns. We must cultivate virtue, and we must steel ourselves against straying into toxic behaviors and mindsets, but don’t be afraid of incarnating. It’s in our nature as souls to do it, just as it is in the nature of living bodies to breathe. Yes, many of us on the spiritual side of things, regardless of tradition, have a strong desire to “escape.” This is something that is particularly poignant in the first months or years after committing to a tradition, when embodiment can feel like anguish. In Platonism, I think this is part of why Iamblichus chose the dialogue sequence he did — I’ve sometimes felt intensely negative about embodiment, especially after diving deep into the texts, but the Timaeus and Proclus’ commentary on it sit us down, tell us to breathe, and awaken us to the beauty that is available in embodiment. Iamblichus cared about human thriving and happiness and the risks posed by being too negative about the cosmos (which, mind you, is a God). If a group capitalizes on those feelings, though, and uses them to prop up a narcissistic leader or harmful doctrines instead of helping someone through those feelings, something is clearly wrong.

There is a larger picture at play. Escapes are rests. Even if we escape the current cosmic cycle, we will come back down again at some point after the next one starts.

And we cannot assume that bad things happen to us in this lifetime because we made a careless incarnation choice or we were a bad person last time. We drank from the river of forgetfulness; perhaps there was another reason we were motivated to choose something, a reason more positive and meaning-driven. In addition, the choices of others, past and present, add conditional limits and bind us to necessity. Everyone choosing a life on Earth that intersects with the 21st century will have to deal with the devastating impacts of the climate crisis and the aftermath of colonial conquest, each in our own way, and often in a way that will bring us pain. Even if we were bad people in a previous life, and bad things happened to us as a way of giving closure to our past wrongs, we should consider them over and done with and ourselves pure. We cannot be vicious to ourselves, indulge in toxic shame, or self-blame. I, like many people, have had issues with negative self-talk. That doesn’t heal wounds. Taking care of our minds with therapy, medication, and/or science-based self-help does. Groups that worsen any sense we carry of worthlessness or inherent badness are shameful.

That’s how I approach making meaning about being bullied as a kid and the toxic impact of my parents staying in their failed marriage “for the kids” — yes, I need to manage trauma from all of that, but I can now mindfully move on. And there are other circumstances in my life that have been hard educators, especially when they challenged my beliefs or sense of self. Learning philosophy and committing to it ultimately brought more peace and closure for dealing with trauma than therapy did, but each of us is unique, and I recommend starting with therapy if you had intense things going on in your youth like I did. We can also use therapy to deal with specific issues! I’m planning to go back to see a therapist about my driving phobia (after I save up money, as addressing the phobia will involve learning how to drive, which costs thousands of dollars in CT even though the actual therapy will be covered by my insurance) because I want accountability, support, and structure. I also started evaluating my negative self-talk to identify when it was being a callous asshole and when it was expressing duress about things that were actually wrong. Where it was valid, I started making changes.

We can sometimes beat ourselves up inside when our behavior does not live up to our moral self-image or when we are experiencing cognitive dissonance instead of addressing the root causes. Note again that trying to heal and grow can be challenging, and therapy gives you a chance to tackle such things with professional support, which is why I recommend it so strongly. Spiritual bypassing and existential despair need to be addressed with self-compassion, acknowledgment of what you have going on inside and situationally, and a commitment to cultivating a healthy mindset and self-care behaviors. On Instagram, I follow Seerut K. Chawla for tell-it-like-it-is mental health advice and The New Happy for gentler advice to get a balance; other stuff from a variety of people just comes into my feed, and witnessing where they all agree and differ is useful for puzzling things out.

Returning to toxic leaders now.

Many toxic groups employ a double-pronged approach, scaring people with what will happen to them — ostracism, goading people into terror about ending badly if they make simple human mistakes, such as liking the wrong books or buying the wrong food or displaying anger — and puffing up followers with the idea that they are members of a special, awakened elite. You cannot be compassionate or cultivate civic virtue if you internalize us/them exclusivity rhetoric. Paradoxically, the language of “we’re a niche” is also used in a less intense way in nontoxic systems. In Platonism, for example, theurgic and philosophical incarnation choices are prioritized for achieving henosis and a providential exit from the current cosmic cycle. But it encourages critical thinking at the same time — you are supposed to question, to work through the dialogues, to understand that even the holiest people incarnated were human beings.

Spiritual teachers are honestly some of the most vulnerable people to tyrannical downfalls, vice, and abuse. The goal of being a guide for others is to positively impact their minds and souls, and those others then open up and become vulnerable. Socrates gets into how devastating spiritual abuse can be at Phaedo 89d-e, as it hardens people against any spirituality or truth-seeking at all and just leaves them jaded. And, while I focused on things that make us vulnerable to toxic teachers and harmful mindsets about embodiment in this section, Montell also uses her book to debunk that these teachers primarily prey on people with preexisting psychological wounds.

Often, those drawn into a cult are people who are motivated to do good in the world — just as Plato teaches, people always want to do what they think is best, even if they are in error. And then it ends up someplace awful the more and more their strong motivation to do good is manipulated through love-bombing and the fear of ostracism and hatred from the people they respect. Us/them thinking and “we’re the only good people and you must believe these specific doctrines, and these alone” rhetoric is extremely prevalent in online New Religious Movement communities in the 2020s, on the right and the left. Do not trust people who try to cut you off from different ideas while threatening to ostracize you if you disobey. It may not lead to getting poison forced down your throat like at Jonestown, but it just might end in deep psychological wounds and remorse in a decade or two and an inability to trust any spiritual teacher or guide or community. Ask questions and seek out the answers. We will not always agree with every point a teacher makes or with who they support (and why) in, for example, the Democratic primary, and difference on such things is okay. Never forget others’ humanity or your own.

And now for some closing comments.

Breathe through any anxiety you are feeling about embodiment. Pray. Be wary of leaders who try to twist your embodiment anxiety into something toxic to your mind. Be wary of leaders who plaster their faces everywhere — while dead holy people are honored with libations and appropriate commemorative well-wishes, they should not be revered as if they are on the same status as the Gods — or who scare you into silence with the threat of ostracism if you question anything or have slightly different beliefs than they do. Meet what life throws at you with grit. Again, do what you need to do for your mental health. If motivated, do a deep dive into theology! Philosophy! Sacred texts! Myths! Other ways of venerating the Gods! The Gods are the wellsprings of human happiness, as per Iamblichus.


2 thoughts on “Prayer Itself Isn’t Toxic, but Spiritual Leaders Sometimes Can Be

  1. Just wanted to wish you luck in your future driving endeavors! I have an extreme driving phobia myself (more specifically, of someone getting hurt as a result of my driving), and after years of counseling, I got my driver’s license at age 27. Unfortunately the fear never left and I actually haven’t driven in a year, but I’m hoping to get back at it soon… I’d be curious to hear about any strategies that end up working for you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! That is one of my fears, but I’m also not very spatially adept … I bump into solid objects and only learned how to ride a bike when I was 10 because I needed someone to explain the physics to me first … it’s hard to see where cars are going and they just seem very erratic. Hopefully, it goes okay. People in this state drive very recklessly (but perhaps it’s the same everywhere now?). I also get anxiety as a passenger, but thankfully, I’m able to keep that under control with a lot of breathing. I’ve been thinking about the phobia desensitization ladder and might start out with realistic driving games, but I’ll have to talk to a therapist about that. Good luck with getting back on the road!

      Liked by 1 person

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