When I started watching The Path on Hulu the other day I was not expecting to get smacked right in my Pagan Community feels. Yes, I know The Path is about a cult rather than about Pagans, however it is filled with the dynamics of a small, insular, religious community and that is very, very relevant to our interests. I’ve been a part of many healthy and less than healthy Pagan groups and I think we can all benefit from stepping back for a minute and looking at some of the the issues raised in The Path.
***This article will contain spoilers for The Path episodes 1-7***
The first thing that really got me while watching The Path (within minutes) was the issue of super special secret teachings that will lead to happiness/enlightenment/personal power/etc. that are only revealed once someone get’s to the highest levels of initiation - once they’re far too invested to walk away if they’re disappointed. This is possibly my biggest issue with large chunks of the magickal community and the mystery traditions of Paganism. In The Path the cult that is at the center of the story is the Meyerist Movement. Their teachings are called The Ladder and as people are initiated into the group they move up the ten rungs of The Ladder (one being the lowest, ten being the highest). As people move up The Ladder more of the group’s secrets are revealed, with the promise that the highest rungs will hold the secrets to true happiness - the only problem is that the highest rungs haven’t actually been created yet and the group’s founder is dying and in a coma. No magickal group has ever promised higher levels of secret teachings that they haven’t actually written yet - right? I was part of a well meaning group that basically did a less horrendous version of exactly this. I do respect mystery traditions to a certain extent. Yes, there are religious and magickal mysteries that require a seeker to have certain trainings under their belts in order to make sense of them safely and fully. However, before I get involved in a group I want to know what I’m getting myself into. If there are super special secrets that are essentially my reward for doing the lower levels, I want to know what they are (at least enough to decided if they’re worth it). However, having questions answered with a dismissive, “well, you’re not a high enough level for those teachings to be revealed” feels a lot like an adult dismissing a child with, “You’ll understand when you’re older.” That kind of condescension triggers all kinds of not-so-fun memories for me. Further, I feel like a lot of groups use higher level teachings as a lure to get and keep members, rather than having them be the genuine tools for growth they’re meant to be. I don’t want my Pagan groups promising me the secrets of enlightenment of the low low price of just four installments of $19.95 or the attendance of ten meetings and endless potlucks. This behavior isn’t true of all groups certainly, but it’s common enough to be a problem.
An issue from The Path that grabbed me right from the get go is the cult of personality. Many Pagan and magickal groups are founded by a charismatic leader that has the ability to bring people to their work through the sheer magnetism of their own personality and power. Sometimes that leader is so charismatic that a well-meaning spiritual or magickal group becomes little more than a cult of personality - doing whatever the leader says just because the leader says so. In The Path we have the character of Cal, the groundroots leader of the Meyerist movement. Cal has the wonderful gift of being able to make anyone feel special, recognized, and valued - an invaluable skill for any leader. However, it leads to people doing pretty much anything he says just because it’s him saying it, regardless of whether it’s really the right thing to do. I’ve seen plenty of groups where the members blindly follow a leader’s direction long past the point of that leader’s actual ability to lead. The point of religious/spiritual/magickal groups, in my opinion at least, is to further personal growth and create community, not just follow a leader like ducklings. No leader is infallible and no human is perfect. In fact, plenty of charismatic leaders get a little drunk off their own power over people and fall to the temptation to abuse it. Cal is a wonderful example of a leader who gets caught in his own propaganda and starts to act like he can do anything just because of his position - and people let him get away with it to a shocking extent. Even the most benevolent of leaders can fall to the temptation to just “shade” their words in a way that will get people to come around to their way of thinking, particularly if they can tell themselves it’s for the people’s “own good.” I know I have a time or two (fortunately I had people call me on it so I could correct myself). Sadly, there are plenty of less than virtuous folks out there just waiting for people to fall into their sphere of influence. The Path reminds us just how very easy it is to manipulate people if you’re in a place of spiritual power over them. Anyone who’s ever led a group will see shades of themselves in Cal (and if you don’t you are probably lying to yourself).
Another issue that hit very close to home for me was the issue of prioritizing the structures of a community versus the personal growth of community members. There comes a time for every well-established group where the leadership of that group becomes so invested in the structures/traditions they have created that they lose sight of why those structures were created in the first place. In The Path there are very specific sets of procedures that people must go through in order to advance their spiritual development. Those procedures were created by the movement’s founder and are virtually sacrosanct. Very early on in the show the main character, Eddie, is falsely accused of infidelity and is forced to go through what amounts to mental reprogramming to “unburden” himself. It is not a pleasant process. However, because the Meyerist community is so invested in the methods they’ve established to “help” people they never stop to ask whether or not they’re really necessary or if there might be another way of doing things. Further, while the process makes the community feel like it’s doing “good work” it completely emotionally eviscerates the individual undergoing it - stunting his own personal growth. In a much more extreme example, in Episode 7 we see Cal confronted with an extreme threat to the Meyerist community as he knows it and he takes even more extreme measures to eliminate that threat - not because the threat was invalid or wrong but because it was dangerous to the structures and institutions that made his life comfortable, predictable and gave him power. I’ve seen plenty of groups where traditions were held so dear that they were held onto long past the point of them being helpful or even healthy. It’s perfectly natural and understandable for people to feel protective of and invested in the structures they’ve created and nurtured over time. However, it is critical for any group/community member, especially those in leadership positions, to remember that structures and processes are created for a reason and once they cease to serve their purpose it’s time to come up with a new process. Respectfully asking “why” is critical to the health of any group. People change over time, communities change over time, the world changes over time and so must the process, structures, institutions, and traditions that we love or they will lose all meaning and fall to dust.
Turns out that spiritual/religious groups all seem to have the same issues of secret keeping, leadership, and ossified structures. In The Path we see these issues writ large in a “worst case” scenario of a group straddling the line between a religious movement and a cult with a leader slowly losing control. While the problems faced by most Pagan/magickal groups are less extreme (at least I hope so), we can still learn a lot from The Path. What secrets does your group hold and why? Are your leaders serving your group or are they lording over you? Do your traditions still make sense? Take some time and really think about how your group and the groups you’ve dealt with in the past take on these issues. Ask yourself if your group is dealing with its issues in a healthy and productive manner or if personality issues and protectionism and fear are fighting for the status quo. When our communities are healthy we all benefit and we all suffer when they’re rotting from within.