A Transpersonal and Existentialist View of the Heavens Gate Cult
A paper submitted to Dr. Jayne Gackenbach as part of the course requirements for Psy 473 (Sleep and Dreams), April, 1997
Most people look at the recent mass suicide of members of the Heaven's Gate cult as a tragic occurrence. Why would so many intelligent, seemingly healthy people take their own lives with such enthusiasm? This action of self-destruction/birth is not unprecedented. One may look at a similar instance of a devout Jewish sect committing mass suicide at Masada around 73 A.D. or more recently the Jonestown disaster. This paper will look at the theology and actions of the Heaven's Gate cult members and explain these in a context of existentialist and transpersonal thought.
The Heaven's Gate cult was led by a couple claiming to be genderless aliens, whose human names were Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. They went by the names Do and Ti respectively. Do met Ti as a patient in a psychiatric hospital where she was a nurse (Hurst,1997). It is the cult's belief (there are still believers) that their leaders were incarnated into adult human bodies. They also believe that Jesus 2000 years ago also came to earth and was incarnated into a human body at the time of his baptism. The cult proports that certain humans or "vehicles" are tagged with a "deposit" containing a soul's beginning. This soul allows the person to believe or recognize the Kingdom of Heaven's Representative ( be it Do or Jesus). These special people would have to follow Do as those who followed Christ 2000 years ago to gain salvation. Do believed that to leave behind this world and join the Kingdom of the Evolutionary Level Above Human one had to reject "family, sensuality, selfish desires, your human mind, and even your human body if it be required of you - all mammalian ways, thinking and behavior".
This theory of enlightenment being found via an ascetic inward path is typical of the introvertive mystic. The introvertive mystic is distinguished by a "pure unified consciousness". It is reached as a result of great efforts to purify ones mind of distractions, defects, or whatever may prevent one from realizing that state.(Horne, 1978) The idea of seekership that is essential to this state of higher consciousness can be seen in the 20 years of "schooling" that many of the members of the Heaven's Gate cult undertook. A teary eyed older gentleman related on the television program (I believe it was 60 minutes) how he and his now deceased wife even gave up their 10 year old daughter to pursue this ascension. This schooling was supposed to enable them to become a new creature, one of the Next Evolutionary Level.
For many of the male members of the cult ties to earthly desires were severed by castration. Do, the leader of the cult was himself a eunuch. Charles Manson rightly referred to the members of Heaven's Gate cult as monks. They, truly took an inward path to knowledge of Ultimate Being. The beliefs of the cult diverge not that far away from the understanding of a Catholic monk priest referred by Dr. Jayne Gackenbach as Father X. He felt that perhaps it would take another Darwin to make sense of his windows into higher states of consciousness. He also believed that a physical Satan may actually exist. (The Dream Diary of a Catholic Monk Priest/web-site)
Through castration the cult members were able to clear their mind of desires, but what of the sense impressions, images and thoughts which have to be eliminated. Thought Sartre suggests is the most insipid of all these distractions. More insipid than even his own flesh, because he feels a greater responsibility for his thoughts. To clear the mind of such repugnant, earthly thoughts one may undertake a trance induced exercise such as meditation. This induced transcendence has five common characteristics as identified by Lukoff (1985). These are:
1. Ecstatic mood, identified as the most common feature:
2. Sense of newly gained knowledge, which include a belief that the mysteries
of life have been revealed;
3. Perceptual alterations, which range from "heightened sensations to auditory and visual hallucinations(p.167)
4. Delusions(if present) have themes related to mythology, which include an incredible range diversity and range;
5. No conceptual disorganization, unlike psychotic persons those with mystical experiences do not suffer from disturbances in language and speech.
Many of these features are readily found in the Heaven's Gate cult. The members of the cult were excited about what they were doing. They were ecstatic about the coming of the Next Level space ship in the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet. The members believed that they had attained an understanding of the mysteries of life. Many aspects of popular culture are explained by the cult. In the Heaven's Gate "classroom" students come to know that space aliens or "Luciferians" were angels in the making who "flunked out" of the classroom. These beliefs follow a newly forming mythology based on conspiracy theories which posit that aliens are in contact with heads of state. This contact explains abductions and the rising rate of technology. The cult believes "fed.'s" are trading humans intended for experimentation for advanced technology.
Not surprisingly the cult stands up for topics dealing in the transpersonal realm. They believe that the "lower forces" or "Luciferians" through the establishment of norms categorize any mental search of Eastern religions, astrology, metaphysics, paranormal, UFO's etc. as fringe topics because the space aliens don't want themselves to be found out. (Heavensgatesite)
Members of the cult that I have heard speak or read from are quite eloquent and suffer no conceptual disorganization. They are not "psychotic" and on that basis can not be ruled out of experiencing higher states of consciousness. They in fact ran a successful Web-design firm called higher source (Plotz, 1997).
Richard Maurice Buck sees mysticism as a kind of salvation, in which members of the human race evolve to a new level of consciousness. He terms this new level of consciousness as cosmic consciousness and it contains the following marks:
a. The subjective light.
b. The moral elevation.
c. The intellectual illumination
d. The sense of immortality
e. The loss of fear of death.
f. The loss of sense of sin.
g. The suddenness, instantaneousness of the awakening.
h. The previous character of the man -- intellectual, moral and physical.
i. The age of illumination.
j. The added charm to the personality so that men and women are always (?) strongly attracted to that person.
k. The transfiguration of the subject of the change as seen by others when the cosmic sense is actually present.
It is surprising how many of these marks are readily apparent in the Heaven's Gate cult.
The cult proposes an intellectual illumination, in which the soul (Next Level mind) is filled and the human-mind container decreases. This is not that different from the Jesus' consubstantial nature of man and god. In this case however as one makes the evolutionary move up the human mind is discarded along with its body. The person thus gains a sense of immortality and no longer fears death and is no longer worried about earthly sin.
Members of the cult found themselves quickly turned on to Do's truth and quickly gave up their worldly possessions to enter the Next Level in this window of time where civilization is ripe for the harvest. There is no question that Do was a charming person who had no problem attracting people to himself and his system of beliefs. Through the followers schooling other members of the cult saw changes in each other which they were excited about. Whether these people actually entered the "cosmic sense" is a another matter, but I believe all indications point towards the attainment of this higher state of consciousness. However I have been unable to find any evidence of moral elevation, or mention of the subjective light in any of the dialogues with members of this cult that I have encountered.
The asceticism involved in reaching this state of enlightenment has been named mortification. The dying involved is that of the "natural man" with his selfish habits and desires so that the "spiritual man" can be born (Horne, 1978). The members of Heaven's Gate must have not found a satisfying enlightenment on earth, because ultimately a great number of them committed suicide. This was due to their ultimate belief that a physical transcendence into new containers in the Next Level would be possible in the spaceship trailing the comet Hale-Bopp. This belief overcame the problems Sartre had with suicide as an escape from the world.
Sartre found himself and everything else which formed an image on his mind as obscene and superfluous (Marcel, 1949). This was the result of his not being able to identify an objects function as purposeful. For example: A tree grows and bears fruit. Why does it do this? Answer; so that it may reproduce. However what is the point of it reproducing, why does it grow? Such situations Sartre would have seen as absurd and he constantly saw this absurdity in his environment. He found such images absurd because he was separated as an observer from the physical universe, including his own body. He felt estranged from this existence. To solve this torturable life Sartre says "I thought vaguely of doing away with myself, to do way with at least one of these superfluous existence's."(Marcel, 1949)
Sartre rejects such an exit because the blood poured out on the gravel, would have been superfluous as well. He feels condemned to feel superfluous through all eternity. This is where the Heaven's Gate cult served and may still serve a purpose for its members. The cult formed a perfectly linear path, like a pure melody in a song in which one could escape this realm of being. This escape to a great extent follows Flavell's developmental criteria for higher states of consciousness. (Gackenbach, 1988)
The path taken by those enlightened by Do was inevitable for those wanting to become one with the Next Level. There was however a choice involved in joining the cult, with some people capable of making the leap choosing not to. The development of cult members to the Next Level does not fulfill Flavell's criteria of being inevitable. However would those capable of higher states of consciousness who did not cultivate this through meditation inevitably reach their next level? I don't think they would.
There is no question that the hypothetical step to the Next Level of the cult members if it happened would have fulfilled Flavell's criteria of being momentous.
It could have been a change which resulted in the subject reaching the same level as the transcendental Jesus Christ.
The Heaven's Gate cult reaching of a new level is directional. The cult believes that as a dog becomes close to a human family it may eventually gain access to being human as a new vessel (human baby) is made available. Just as the dog may move up into the human evolutionary kingdom, so may the human advance to the Evolutionary Level Above Human.
The human species however is not uniformly affected by this developmental change. Only those humans who have been "tagged" or given a deposit or implant of knowledge concerning the TRUTH about the Evolutionary Level Above Human can make this developmental change. The "souls" that reach a certain level of corruption, having of free will separated themselves from the "creator" will self-destruct.
At first look it appears that this development is irreversible. There seems to be nothing more finite than killing yourself. According to the beliefs of the Heaven's Gate cult the step into the Evolutionary Level Above Human is not irreversible. Members may degenerate and fall from grace as the "malevolent space races" have, thus becoming the "greatest enemy" to human enlightenment. (Heavensgatesite)
Alexander claims that reaching the stage of post-representational thought shows more than 20 psychophysiological parameters that differentiate it from representational levels of thought (Gackenbach, 1988). The cult members step to their higher evolutionary level also requires physiological changes. This can be seen in their prospective new body or container they will receive, which is necessary to function at the Evolutionary Level Above Human. See Figure 1. The figure is that of a prototypical alien, complete with bulging forehead and large, friendly, almond shaped eyes.
I hope this paper has shown that the mass suicides undertaken by the Heaven's Gate cult members were not the result of a flippant whim but grounded on some of the experiences/beliefs of great thinkers in the existential/transpersonal realm. Unfortunately for us, these people did not see as Merton did that knowledge and being were inexplicably tied. There are two ways in which Merton believes that one may answer the question "How can I relate to my body?". He answers the question thus:
"I can live in such a way that I belong to my body, am identified with it;
or I can treat my body as an instrument in such a way that I am enslaved by it; for
example suicide is the extreme case in which I am really the victim of a tragic
illusion; for the positive meaning of my liberty is the possibility of affirmation."
To most of us these people suffered this tragic illusion , but to them it was a gateway into another evolutionary level, not unlike that associated with higher states of consciousness.