Chanting: Brainwash, Indoctrination, and Groupthink?

photo: Manu Praba, Chanting pirith at temple, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
photo: Manu Praba, Chanting pirith at temple, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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[1]. 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:

  1. 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) ;
  2. Fills the chanter with pure, divine thoughts or vibrations;
  3. 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:

  1. 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].
  2. While simultaneously taught that liberation and infallible answers lie in surrendering and trusting the authority of the guru and his teachings.
  3. 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.
photo: Khánh Hmoong, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
photo: Khánh Hmoong, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

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[2]:

  1. Illusions of invulnerability lead members of the group to be overly optimistic and engage in risk-taking.
  2. Unquestioned beliefs lead members to ignore possible moral problems and ignore consequences of individual and group actions.
  3. Rationalizing prevents members from reconsidering their beliefs and causes them to ignore warning signs.
  4. Stereotyping leads members of the in-group to ignore or even demonize out-group members who may oppose or challenge the groups ideas.
  5. Self-censorship causes people who might have doubts to hide their fears or misgivings.
  6. “Mindguards” act as self-appointed censors to hide problematic information from the group.
  7. Illusions of unanimity lead members to believe that everyone is in agreement and feels the same way.
  8. 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.”[3]

“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”.[4]

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.

Notes

1 p 337 In Gods We Trust, edited by Thomas Robbin, Transaction Publishers, NJ. 2010

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

14 comments

  1. Uwsboi14

    Great post. As you know, in SRF, in order to chant correctly, one must have their concept of God clearly defined in their mind. This adds an extra level of intensity and absorption into a larger cosmology, which is intoxicating. One feels not only that they are in touch with their “truer self”, but that they are connected to the very source of life. If one believes or has the desire to believe these things, he/she would naturally think they had struck pure gold. I’m starting to think more and more that Belief is one the most powerful tools of the mind, not just in religion, but in so many areas of life. Real question: is there ever a time when holding to a belief in something helps or does clinging to a belief always close the mind to real inquiry and discovery? I’m starting to think the latter…

  2. SkepticMeditations

    @Uwsboi14: The SRF or Yogananda methods for chanting (see Cosmic Chants link below) are, seems to me, as vague and wishful as the concepts of gods, auras, or chakras. Whatever personal feeling arises during chanting can be attributed to a divine response. But the devotee is guilty (at fault) if she experiences negative or bad feelings during chanting. This is one of the traps (self mistrust and self loathing) that gurus lay for the unsuspecting followers and keeps them surrendering obediently to the meditation practices and to the guru.

    I agree with you that belief is powerful. Extremely. That’s why its also scary (suicide bombers believe strongly that killing themselves and others is the way to heaven and allah’s grace). A placebo (sugar pill) can sometimes be powerful at curing disease when swallowed with strong belief that the placebo will work. But is a placebo (strong desire or wish) a reliable way to health or knowledge about ourselves and the universe? I doubt that. Thanks for your comments.

    Cosmic Chants Preface http://www.yoganandafortheworld.com/cosmic-chants/

  3. uwsboi14

    “But the devotee is guilty (at fault) if she experiences negative or bad feelings during chanting.” I can’t say I’ve experienced bad feelings while chanting, but, to your point, I did think that I had better feel something good or else I was not a good devotee. It’s possible for the devotee to summon all kinds of nice feelings if one feels pressured to do so and if, as you say, would feel guilty if he didn’t.

    At the same time, one is also told that “guilt” is poisonous to the spiritual life of the devotee. It’s kind of twisted really, on the one hand, to require that someone be happy and positive under all circumstances and, on the other hand, blame the devotee if the applied methods aren’t working (which is exactly how you make someone feel guilty). You’re right, it’s a perfect setup for self mistrust and self loathing.

    I’ve thought sometimes that the practice of “ego bashing” by the teacher to the student was just an excuse for the teacher to be a *@#$&^!. – but a deeply unconscious excuse.

  4. Mark Kincaid

    You know, I would be interested in hearing more critiques of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings. I’ve talked to a follower of his, and after awhile he started to come off as a sort of present moment fundamentalist.

  5. Mark Kincaid

    I meant to post that in the comment section of “Five Warning Signs of Dangerous Meditation Groups”. My apologies.

  6. SkepticMeditations

    @uwsboi14: Yeah. I think you are onto something.

    When I was drinking deeply of the Yogananda koolaid, when I was an SRF member, meditator, and chanter were always in the back of my mind serious concerns. (I took my meditations, chanting, and spiritual discipline seriously–and still do that’s why I can’t believe in the doctrines any longer).

    I “knew” according to Yogananda’s teachings that I was not going to in this life nor probably would not in many lifetimes escape ego (my deluded self), nor escape reincarnation on earth, nor attain the highest stages of divinity. And, if I did obtain the ultimate spiritual yogic liberation (nirbikalpa samadhi or some such other vague divine state), I would be selfish if I didn’t want to come back to encase my free spirit into a body, physical or astral plane to help others. The doctrine of yoga liberation, as I know it through SRF and my research of other modern yoga schools, is nothing more than a rat race for imaginary spiritual liberation and illusory idealized perfection.

  7. John de Rivaz

    This is surely what religious services do, repeating unprovable hypotheses as creeds. As do political meetings with people cheering to phrases like “we’ll tax the rich (or other race or group) until they howl with anguish”.

  8. SkepticMeditations

    @John R: Good points. Yes, most religions have group or individual singing, music, or group chant. Seems to prime followers for hypnotic, trance-like receptivity so clergy or authority can indoctrinate the congregation. Funny how we humans willingly submit to these indoctrinations–until we see through the scam and mind control. Unfortunately, many people never question their religious indoctrinations or wacky “spiritual” beliefs.

    I’m interested in hearing what your religion is or used to be, where you currently stand on these issues. And, tell me if you have a blog I could visit.

    Thanks

  9. SkepticMeditations

    @John R: Thanks for sharing a little more about yourself, your stand on religion or immortality. The Religion and Cryonics Group is closed, so I couldn’t read much there. I’d be interested in hearing what connected you with this website. I’m not seeing any direct connections with the notions of cryonics, save perhaps that yoga, meditation, mysticism doctrines tend to have a soteriology (doctrine of salvation) as the end game: “immortality” and/or “liberation” from “this life” existence. Cyronics seems to be preservation of the body first or perhaps that is the vehicle/method for same soteriology as yoga? Interesting.

  10. John de Rivaz

    Thanks for that. The religion and cryonics group is open to anyone to join, there is no charge. You can learn more about cryonics on http://www.cryonics.org

    The difference between it and religion is that cryonics offers no certainty, but relies on an extrapolation of technological advance to work. As far as I know there is no one who claims sure and certain knowledge that it will work, but there are plenty of people in the world as a whole who seem to have sure and certain knowledge of future capability, and this knowledge give them the belief that it won’t work. Personally I would doubt anyone claiming sure knowledge of the future.

  11. SkepticMeditations

    @John R: I agree. Healthy and smart to doubt anyone claiming certainty. To admit “I don’t know” is the mark of humility and humanity, while being open to new information and belief revision. Thanks

  12. Carola Collins

    I have been researching cults, gurus, groupthink as an interest that started when a couple of seemingly intelligent people I know joined up with and followed a ‘spiritual guru’. I attended a few of the meditations and was simply not interested. Later I found that this guru and his wife recruited people to work for them via resumes, the only difference being that they were not paid, that this was all ‘guru seva’ devotion to the guru. This pushed me further away from this group. Eventually one of the members did not agree with her ‘teacher’ and they had a falling out and she now does not play the ‘follow the leader’ game. I also came across a site that had a section about “Is Igor Kufayev a true guru” (Igor is the guru these people follow). Reading through the many comments I noticed that many of the glowing reviews were made by the followers standing up for their guru. IMO I believe that this guru worship is dangerous and many or most of these gurus are narcissists who recruit followers who then are ‘encouraged’ to spend more and more money on VERY pricey spiritual ‘immersions’ and ‘retreats’. Am I wrong here? Here is the link: http://www.electricalspirituality.com/igor-kufayev-a-true-guru/

  13. Scott

    @Carola: Yes. You are smart to question and doubt the claims of any so-called guru, Igor, or L. Ron.

    Many follower-disciples of spiritual teachers or gurus invest much money, time, and psychological energy in the guru and his teachings. Inside, they can’t see the dangers of a closed-system. Wishful thinking leads to hopes of a big payback for their sacrifices: if not in this life, then in the beyond or some hoped for afterlife. Is this not the heart of consumerism and nearly all religious doctrines? They come with extraordinary, unsubstantiated claims if only followers “Go sell all that though hast and follow me”. Or, buy my books, retreats, or webinars and you’ll be saved.

    Thanks

Leave a Reply