To say chanting is a form of brainwashing may be too harsh or inaccurate. Yet, chanting may make people vulnerable to suggestions from charismatic leaders, cult indoctrination and group think.
Edgar Schein, Psychologist and Organizational Culture expert noted that, psychophysiological stress facilitates “unfreezing” and “inducing” a motivation to change. In other words, repetitive chanting may make some people more ready and willing to adopt suggestions from others, especially when there is psychological stress or emotional buildup.
Gurus and meditation groups often use chanting as a key component of their teachings. Why?
Gurus claim that proper chanting, use of mantras and affirmations, serves to:
- Attunes the lower, human mind with the higher cosmic vibrations, eg. chanting Om merges the consciousness with the universal life force (whatever these vague concepts mean) (Read my post The Sound of OM) ;
- Fills the chanter with pure, divine thoughts or vibrations;
- Burns the seeds of karma, heals and liberates the body, mind and soul of wicked thoughts, of sins, and of the many evils supposedly lurking within the group’s practitioners (who aspire to attain the purity and perfection as claimed by the guru and his exalted followers).
Troubles with Chanting
One trouble with these concepts is that the meditator is primed to compare themselves with an unattainable, unlivable ideal of perfection, with vague notions of samadhi or cosmic consciousness. Supposedly only the guru and a few exalted disciples can determine who has attained these “higher” states of divinity.
Other troubles with chanting and the indoctrinations that occur through its practice, include:
- Practitioner chanters are subtly indoctrinated to mistrust themselves and to fear oneself; [I recall the lines of one chant written by Paramahansa Yogananda: “If I find not, I will not blame Thy sea; I will find fault with my diving.” How convenient for the guru to blame the student for the guru’s faulty doctrine].
- While simultaneously taught that liberation and infallible answers lie in surrendering and trusting the authority of the guru and his teachings.
- The indoctrinations of the guru and consensus of support from followers may be psychologically damaging. The extraordinary claims serve to keep the members inside seeking ideals always beyond reach in the “cult-like” meditation group.
Chanting and Groupthink
Groupthink was a concept popularized by social psychologist Irving L. Janis that refers to a psychological phenomenon where people strive for consensus within a group. In many cases, these people will set aside their own personal beliefs or adopt the opinion of the rest of the group.
Janis identified eight different “symptoms” that indicate groupthink:
- Illusions of invulnerability lead members of the group to be overly optimistic and engage in risk-taking.
- Unquestioned beliefs lead members to ignore possible moral problems and ignore consequences of individual and group actions.
- Rationalizing prevents members from reconsidering their beliefs and causes them to ignore warning signs.
- Stereotyping leads members of the in-group to ignore or even demonize out-group members who may oppose or challenge the groups ideas.
- Self-censorship causes people who might have doubts to hide their fears or misgivings.
- “Mindguards” act as self-appointed censors to hide problematic information from the group.
- Illusions of unanimity lead members to believe that everyone is in agreement and feels the same way.
- Direct pressure to conform is often placed on members who pose questions, and those who question the group are often seen as disloyal or traitorous.
Benefits and Dangers of Groupthink
Groupthink has some benefits. Large numbers of people working together may find that groupthink allows the group to make decisions, or to complete projects quickly and efficiently.
However, groupthink can be dangerous. The suppression of individual opinions and creative thinking can lead to poor decision-making and inefficient problem-solving.
Suggestibility and Mythic Themes in Chanting
Chanting individually or in groups may be especially hypnotic and opens the practitioner’s mind to groupthink, to suggestions and indoctrinations of a charismatic leader. Chanting can be emotionally intoxicating or even psychologically addictive. Chanting may reinforce illusions of invulnerability and beliefs in cultural myths as taught by the guru leader.
“The Navajo chants were considered”, in Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy: Neuroscience, Personality, and Cultural Factors, “to facilitate suggestibility and shifts in attention through repetitive singing and the use of culture-specific mythic themes.”
“Transcendental Meditation (TM) is just trance combined with suggestion” wrote Joe Kellett, former Transcendental Meditation teacher and author of Suggestibility.org, a website for How Transcendental Meditation Really Works: A Critical Opinion. “And once some people are in a trance state they become so ‘suggestible’ that in addition to acting out the suggestion that they should relax deeply, they will swallow doctrinal indoctrination whole without rationally analyzing it. This process of trance induction followed by immediately by doctrinal indoctrination is how all cults recruit. The only difference between the many various cults is how they induce the trance state and what the specific doctrine is that is thus inculcated”.
In Eastern inspired meditation groups, chanting and affirmations bolster dogmas taught by gurus and charismatic leaders.
Is it likely that meditators or chanters are having a pure experience of an authentic “self within”? Or, is it more likely the meditative experiences are filtered and interpreted through the indoctrinations of the meditation group, cultural myths, and other suggestions implanted by charismatic guru-leaders?
After I stripped away the indoctrinations and myths I got from the SRF meditation group that I had belonged I found that meditation is somewhat less rejuvenating than sleep, exercise, sex or any healthy human activity.
1 p 337 In Gods We Trust, edited by Thomas Robbin, Transaction Publishers, NJ. 2010
2 What Is Groupthink? About.com, Psychology, http://psychology.about.com/od/gindex/g/groupthink.htm
3 p 109 Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy: Neuroscience, Personality, and Cultural Factors, edited by Deirdre Barrett, Greenwood Publishing Group: Praeger. Santa Barbara: CA. 2010
4 The website Suggestibility.org goes into depth on how Transcendental Meditation teachers systematically indoctrinate, induce trance, to recruit people into their cult or closed authoritarian system bolstered by meditation and chanting of mantras. http://www.suggestibility.org