Though perhaps no saint, Heather Kavan has done her share of suffering for religion. For 11 months, Kavan, constitutionally not a morning person, rose before 6am to join a group of Falun Gong practitioners for half an hour of silent exercises.
Did she find transcendence? Not exactly. For Kavan, who is of slim build, a defining memory is of penetrating cold.
"I was stuck in the lotus position in a temperature below zero when I knew I just had to get my coat. And when I tried to stand up, I found I was paralysed from the waist down. So of course I went crashing down to the ground, and I crawled over to get my coat, and one of them looked at me and said, somewhat offhandedly, 'If you had been meditating properly you wouldn't have felt the cold.'"
It doesn't help that the 6am exercise sessions seem to have gone into abeyance when Kavan stopped attending.
She suspects her presence was the impetus for the sessions all along.
Kavan's small, corner office on the Manawatu campus is surprisingly pleasant. Long and narrow, with two intersecting rows of windows, it feels a little like the bridge of a ship, and the view, while largely of concrete, is softened by Kavan's thriving collection of indoor plants.
On the wall is her framed 2009 national award for sustained excellence in teaching, and, alongside, its tongue-in-cheek complement, a Pre-Raphaelite print entitled The Accolade and featuring a kneeling Prince Valiant-like figure in chainmail being knighted by a white-robed, long haired damsel.
So far, so standard. While radiating more order and serenity than most, this is just another academic garret, and the books – Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue and Lyn Truss' Eats Shoots and Leaves – are those you would expect to find in the collection of someone who teaches speech writing and the art of writing.
What isn't in evidence is Kavan's alter ego: Kavan the investigator of religions, cults and 'altered states'.
The room is bare of religious iconography, crystals, and uplifting homilies.
Yet here is a woman who professes to be, if anything, more comfortable in a revivalist meeting or meditation group than in the confines of academia.
And away from the university surrounds, Kavan's clinical remove falls away. "Most of us can suspend reality for a temporary period when we go to a movie; I suspend it when I go to a religious meeting." She shares the fervour of those around her.
Some things, she says, have to be experienced to be understood.
Take, for example, the case of Janet Moses, the mother of two who drowned during a marathon exorcism session. Were those who forced cold water on her to expel the demons guilty of manslaughter? A jury thought so.
Kavan, who attended the six-week trial in the cause of research, is not so sure.
"The Moses case hinged on the consent issue. The judge advised the jury that if they believed that the accused had an honest belief that Janet Moses consented to the water being poured down her throat just before death, then they would have to find the defendants not guilty.
"The prosecutor argued, eloquently, – he should have been a writer – how can anyone say they thought she consented; they weren't thinking at all; there was no thought involved – at least not towards the end. And it did ring true. They were so much in an altered state that they weren't thinking.
"Similarly, what the defence said rang true, that at times Janet called the shots during the exorcism; she would say 'the demon is here' and the defendants would rush to expel it for her; she believed she was possessed. They were trying to help her. They did have an honest belief she was consenting because she declined offers to take her away from the situation."
There is no denying that the events surrounding Moses' death were bizarre. Up to 50 people were present at any time in the small lounge where the exorcism was held. The windows were tightly sealed to prevent demons entering. The temperatures rose to "furnace-like" levels. The laundry – which held clothing contaminated by vomit – and the toilet beyond were declared off limits. The room was awash with water. People had taken to relieving themselves in a corner.
"It's understandable that people who hadn't experienced [anything like this] couldn't comprehend the defendants' responses," says Kavan.
"Witness after witness testified that Janet had a strange look in her eyes and that was what convinced them that she was possessed: while there were other unusual behaviours, it was this very strange look in her eyes that everyone recalled. I've seen that look in people's eyes, and it is frightening. I don't interpret it as possession, but I can understand how someone else would."
How then does Kavan propose to interpret the trial for the purposes of her research?
Her proposal to the presiding judge was that she apply the lens of collective entrapment, a subset of group think2, in which members escalate their commitment to a course of action even though it is obviously failing.
Now she is more inclined to interpret the events surrounding Janet Moses' death in terms of trance or altered states.
She also finds herself interested in the issue of gender: in most exorcisms it is the woman who is exorcised, the man who is the exorcist.
"Usually that is because the exorcist sees women as easy targets, less likely to say 'no, what a load of rubbish'. But in this instance the people who were perceived as possessed were often those who fainted under the heat. So they were more likely to be female. The stronger males had a better chance of being able to physically endure.
"If you're in a group and someone is checking out who has a demon, and they see you as the next target for an exorcism, there are really only a couple of ways of getting out of it. You can't say, 'no, I'm not possessed', because that would just be evidence that you are. You could fake deliverance, which one of the witnesses in the Lee case3 did: he went along with it, and at the first possible moment [he faked deliverance]. And, of course, the other way is to turn on someone else really quickly. 'Yes, there it is. It's just flown to you!'
"Whoever is quick-witted enough to put themselves in the position of the discerner [and say], 'it's on him', or on her – usually it's her – is the survivor.
"I often think that exorcisms are like a game of spiritual poker: it's about bluff. Whoever can bluff the best wins. However, I don't believe anyone was bluffing in the Moses case. The family were tragically inexperienced."
Set out in print – or related to a jury – the events leading up to Janet Moses' death in fact sound insane. In coldly rational terms, what was to stop someone opening the windows, stepping outside the door, asking for help, simply saying "enough"?
Those caught up in the events – even those who stood accused of her manslaughter – acknowledged that to an outsider how it all played out would seem incomprehensible.
Yet at times during the testimony, Kavan was seized by an almost overpowering sense of empathy: she wanted to approach the defendants and say, "I do understand".
Similarly, many other religious phenomena can only truly be understood through direct experience.
"When the anti-cult people criticise cult members, I often think that they've never been near a cult leader. Because the big-name cult leaders, the gurus, emanate an energy: it's magnetic, it's addictive. People let down their guard, all rational thought goes out the window. It's like falling in love."
What is the lure for Kavan personally? Part of it is that as a self-described child of the sixties and seventies she comes from a generation of spiritual seekers.
But there is also a certain in-the-moment thrill. "You can feel the adrenalin that goes around the room. Even if you're a sceptic, the most mundane activity takes on an air of excitement.
"If I go into a room where people believe in spiritual entities, even a simple act like choosing where to sit takes on a whole new dynamic. I could inadvertently sit on a chair that someone believes an invisible entity is occupying. Every move is filled with adrenalin. There's a whole game that goes on. It's compelling."
She enjoys the sense of uplift that revival meetings and meditation groups sometimes achieve. She likes the camaraderie, the moments of transcendence, and the "fantastic stories" they weave. In some groups, she says, the intimacy is closer than you would find in many families.
But unlike the true believers, Kavan does not believe there is only one true path to the divine.
Indeed, you could almost think of Kavan as a spiritual mystery shopper, sampling the range and setting out her insights in academic papers.
It is time-consuming work. Often the face a group of believers presents to the outside world will be at odds with the behind-the-scenes reality.
"With a cult, particularly an extreme cult, you have to spend about six months with the organisation before you even discover the cult. Usually there is a fairly straightforward-sounding religion, which is a front. And after six months you discover that there are other meetings."
Even for the non-cult-like manifestations of religions, developing an understanding takes time.
To produce her research on glossolalia – aka speaking in tongues – Kavan spent over three years observing the practice in two very different religious groups4 – a Pentecostal congregation and an apocalyptic millenarian yoga-based sect. For her paper on Falun Gong5 there was the 11-month period of rising before daylight to participate in 6 o'clock group exercises.
Her approach to Falun Gong was made when she discovered it was inviting academic institutions to conduct unbiased research.
Kavan immersed herself in her research topic, conducting ethnographic research (part of which was her 6am exercise attendance), analysing Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi's speeches and writings, and extensively consulting external courses.
To begin with, her sympathies lay firmly with Falun Gong, but as she became more knowledgeable a shift took place. Though the Falun Gong members she met were "humble and courageous", Falun Gong itself was less attractive: it was adept at working the media to its advantage, was less than forthcoming about some of the less palatable aspects of its dogma, and was only too ready to bring defamation suits against anyone who published unfavourable material.
Is Falun Gong a cult? It certainly seems to display characteristics that are cult-like, writes Kavan: "An idolised charismatic leader who exploits people by letting them believe he – and it is usually a 'he' – is God's mouthpiece; mind control techniques; an apocalyptic world view used to manipulate members; exclusivity ('only our religion can save people'); alienation from society; and a view of members as superior to the rest of humanity."
In her eclectic approach to religion, Kavan may be unusual, but she says the quest for ecstasy – to be outside of ourselves – is one of the most basic human drives.
By international yardsticks, New Zealand is highly secular, but, as seems to be embedded in the nature of being human, many of us hunger for something more.
In a recent survey, 30.5 per cent of New Zealanders agreed with the statement "I don't follow a religion, but am a spiritual person interested in the sacred or the supernatural"6.
The trouble, says Kavan, comes when the spiritual experience people seek – "which is a state of higher consciousness" – becomes encumbered with other people's ideas. "The person's genuine experience becomes interpreted in terms of the group's ideology, and the leader's ego and dogmas and rules start dominating the experience.
"What's the old saying?" she jokes. "I love Jesus; it's his fan club I can't stomach."
And unlike Kavan, who will in the end return to her office to question and analyse every aspect of her experience, many people lose all scepticism, however strange the doctrines they are asked to believe.
"[People] get into the habit of suspending doubt for such long periods it becomes part of their personality; it becomes a way of living."
Can the benefits be come by without the drawbacks? Imagine.
"One of the things I've been looking at, and other scholars have been searching for, is a way that people can have these amazing experiences without having a leader who will manipulate them."
This is no longer so far fetched. With the neurological basis of religious experience being increasingly well understood, perhaps the day will come when drug- and guru-free spiritual epiphanies will be available on demand.
"If people could have these experiences without being driven by someone else's ideology and ego, that would be great," says Kavan. "There would be a lot less religious violence in the world."
(Massey.ac.nz, May 1, 2010)
Original text: http://www.massey.ac.nz/massey/about-massey/news/article.cfm?mnarticle=the-joy-of-sects-01-05-2010