“Do not try to be superior to the people around you.”
These are the parting words of Vissarion, a Russian cult leader who believes he is the Second-Coming of Christ, when asked by a Vice documentary crew what advice he’d have for Western viewers to follow.
It might seem odd for a man who claims to be Jesus to suggest humility, but when you look as Vissarion’s actions it makes sense. Vissarion’s movement Church of the Last Testament lives a relatively simple existence in the mountains of Siberia. Their community does not eat meat, practices traditional sex roles, and lives a peaceful agrarian lifestyle. Despite having thousands of followers who believe Vissarion is Jesus Christ himself, he rarely appears publicly, and seems to have little desire to proselytize or spread his message. His appearance in this Vice documentary was his first media appearance in three years.
The Comparative Mind
Vissarion is not the first spiritual teacher to suggest avoiding pride. The Bible itself says “pride cometh before a fall.” The desire to feel superior to others has been discussed by many spiritual teachers, as coming from the comparative mind. The comparative mind is the part of the ego that is constantly comparing us and our accomplishments to others. “He has more money than me. She’s more attractive. He’s weaker.” The comparative mind oscillates between pride when it compares itself to someone it deems itself better than, and shame when it compares itself to something it deems itself worse than.
Rather than basing its value in the absolute universal truth of who a person is, the comparative mind bases it in the relative constantly changing value of how it measures up to the relative success of others. This kind of thinking leads to a narcissism, mood swings, and a constant struggle to be better than everyone around you.
There is a parable about the comparative mind that appears in several cultures. A shopkeeper was constantly comparing himself to his rival across the street. He obsessed over who did more business, who made more money, and even whose wife was prettier. One day an angel came to him and said, “behold, the Lord has smiled on you, and I will grant you whatever you wish for.” “What’s the catch?” the shopkeeper shrewdly asked. “Whatever you get, your rival will be granted double. If you get a thousand dollars, he will get two thousand. If you ask for a beautiful wife, his wife will be twice as beautiful.” The shopkeeper thought for a moment, and then replied, “Blind me in one eye.”
This is the comparative mind at it’s worst. This is why Vissarion adds after his warning against seeking superiority, “that intention leads to death.” Yet the comparative mind is all around us. It is at the heart of the ego. I saw the comparative mind throughout the documentary on Vissarion, in his followers, in the documentary host, and in myself.
When Vissarion’s followers appear on camera, they describe him as the “only source of information for all answers,” convinced that he is the one true teacher. Interestingly, by calling him superior to other teachers, they miss the point of his teachings. The idea that believing “our God is superior to your God” has lead to war and death throughout human history is something Vissarion and the most skeptical atheist can agree on.
Vissarion’s community practices traditional sex roles. Boys and girls are educated separately. Boys are taught “to build a house and comprehend the masculine profession.” Girls are taught to respect men because “man is a creator. He is a master.” Men and women are taught to live in peace with one another in harmony, and avoid taking each other’s roles.
When the teacher at the girl’s school suggest the documentary host bring his girlfriend, he calls it an offer for “brainwashing my girlfriend into misogynistic slavery.” It’s clear he sees the Western emphasis on equality as superior to Vissarion community and traditional sex roles. He looks down on the men and women for marrying young and taking on traditional roles.
In doing so, he actually ignores that most of Vissarion’s followers are there by their own choice, and very happy with this way of living. In holding Western equality as superior to traditional roles, the host actually misses the entire intention of the movement for equality, which was to give men and women the freedom to make their own choices about what roles they play – including the freedom to make traditional ones. As one follower replies when asked about people becoming followers, “if this person [Vissarion] can help them, why not?”
The documentary host himself is a somewhat pudgy American, who sneaks chocolate covered ice cream in before trudging up the mountain. Despite being in a beautiful foreign country, he finds himself wishing for American conveniences. He’s sloppily dressed, and somewhat scattered and effeminate in his mannerisms. He seems somewhat shocked by the religious and cultural beliefs that have been common throughout most of human history. Watching him throughout the documentary, I found myself judging as inferior to the people he was interviewing, and myself as superior.
Of course, who am I to judge? From another perspective, he’s traveling the world making cool documentaries. Sure, ice cream isn’t the health choice I’d make, but for someone experiencing a blood sugar crash, ice cream is a step up in terms of his energy. And more importantly – what do I gain by comparing myself to him in any way? As a writer or an artist, I can offer a different perspective, in the hopes it benefits others, but his life is his to lead, and my judgement is mine alone. If I were to judge him, or make his perceived shortcomings the focus of my work, I’d miss the intention I have when I read or watch content online, which is to improve my own life, not tear others down.
This is what Christ meant when he said, “judge not, lest ye be judged.” If you play the game of the comparative mind, there will always be someone better – someone stronger, wealthier, more attractive, better with women, older, wiser, or more successful looking down on you. You won’t be able to enjoy or be grateful for what you have because you’ll be constantly comparing it to artificial standards to see if it is enough.
Replace Comparison With Gratitude
Vissarion’s community could hardly be considered superior by Western standards. They don’t have money, cell phones, trendy clothes, a social media presence, or any of the things Westerns consider essential. Yet, watching the documentary I found myself wishing for their lifestyle. Vissarion has created a space where men and women live in harmony with nature and each other, in spiritual community with traditional sex roles, healthy living, and gorgeous views. Who wouldn’t want to live there?
But even this desire to live someone else’s life comes from the comparative mind. I know my path isn’t to run off to Siberia to join or a cult or disappear into the woods (yet), and I suspect it isn’t the intention of our readers. Rather than comparing our lives to theirs, it’s better to appreciate what each of us have and begin allowing more of the experiences we’re drawn to in others into our own lives. Could I spend more time in nature and community where I am now? Absolutely. Could I drop some of the judgements I have and focus more of my attention of the things I’m grateful for? Easily.
Despite having thousands of followers who see him as the Son of God, Vissarion seems to have little desire to increase his control. If anyone would be tempted to seek superiority, it’s a cult leader. Perhaps Vissarion has been down that road and seen where it leads. It is said “the greatest power requires the lightest touch.” Where other cults go door to door spreading their message, and hunting down apostates, Vissarion offers very little for his critics to push against. By not claiming to be superior, he creates space for others to soften and hear his message.
During the documentary, Vissarion’s message to his followers is that we are “all students in the school of life.” Perhaps rather than seeking superiority, Vissarion would have us simply seek to explore, learn, and grow. Despite having a message of love, his message has been misinterpreted by many of his own followers, and transformed into a message of superiority. Hey, wait, that sounds like another famous spiritual teacher I’ve heard of. Maybe this guy is the Second-Coming of Jesus Christ after all.
Read More: An Examination Of Cult Leader Game