Psychological Enslavement to Meditation Leaders

By Mark Schellhase (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Mark Schellhase, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

What are yoga meditation cults? How do they work?

In this post, we explore three definitions of cults and speculate about the extreme psychological dependence between leaders and followers of yoga meditation groups. Next, we examine the leader/follower behaviors and attitudes of submission and psychological enslavement through processes that include yoga meditation techniques. Finally, we discuss ways followers may escape psychological enslavement to these leaders and to meditation processes.

Let’s begin by exploring three definitions of cults that apply to many yoga meditation groups.

Definitions of Cults

The term cult is often used pejoratively, to refer specifically to “a quasi-religious organization using devious psychological techniques to gain and control adherents” (Collins English Dictionary)1.

The adherents of so-called cults are followers of the group’s leader(s).

In Traumatic Abuse in Cults: A Psychoanalytic Perspective2, Shaw, a psychoanalyst and former Siddha Yoga ashram resident, gives the following definition of a cult:

A cult is largely based on the personality of its leader(s).

The cult group leader(s) claim, explicitly or implicitly:

  • To have reached human perfection;
  • To have unity with the divine [god or cosmic intelligence];
  • To be exempt from ordinary social limitations and moral restrictions.

Using Shaw’s definition of a cult, it is not difficult to see the extreme dependence and abuses that can occur for the followers of these groups.

In The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Kramer and Alstad3 define:

A cult is a group with a leader who is considered by followers to be unchallengeable and infallible.

Kramer and Alstad say that a cult is a group led by a person(s):

  • Revered as God’s unique vessel, or as a manifestation of God, or as the god-force;
  • Often is the group’s founder, not merely an interpreter but the creator of Truth;
  • Exercises absolute authority over group with few if any external constraints, with free reign over the group.

In Cult Attraction is Not a Problem of Logic4, Stein contends:

“The process of retaining followers is really where the core of the brainwashing and control process takes place”.

Stein gives characteristics of the processes used by many yoga meditation cults, which include:

  • Controlled by a leader or leadership group that is charismatic and authoritarian.
  • Closed system. The inner structure of the group is isolating and steeply hierarchical.
  • Use of processes to break-down and retain followers, such as sleep deprivation, control of relationships, lack of privacy, control of information, diet and so on. [Especially regular, intensive practice of meditation techniques].
Hans-Jörg Aleff, Chained, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Hans-Jörg Aleff, Chained, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Shaw, Kramer and Alstad, and Stein all described the cultic characteristics of many yoga meditation groups.

Methods Used by Cultic Meditation Groups

What is needed though is not to label certain groups as cults. What is most important is recognizing the methods used by cultic groups, the processes that lead to destructive behaviors and psychological enslavement, so that we may learn how these groups operate and to avoid or escape enslavement to them.

Process of Submission and Psychological Enslavement

There are seven steps of submission to leader(s) and enslavement of the follower. Inside yoga meditation groups, the given meditation techniques are a key component that helps anesthetize followers into submission and enslavement by the leader(s).

Seven-steps of submission/enslavement to cultic leader(s):

  1. Follower relies on teacher, guru, philosophy or religion to validate “reality” of experiences and methods, especially of meditation practices.

a. Follower accepts the underlying premise that “there is something wrong, missing, or corrupt within me, which is beyond my awareness and control.”

b. Read my post Duped by Meditation? for more information on this step in the process.

2. Follower understands the leader(s) are, explicitly or implicitly, perfect, infallible, and unchallengeable. Leader(s) is supposedly a vessel of Truth or divine-manifestation.

3. Follower isolates, closes to outside, avoids conflicting inputs. Submits to authority of leader(s).

4. Follower engages in processes of meditation practices, sleep deprivation, diets or fasts, control of information, control of relationships, and so on.

5. Follower eventually discovers disturbing or unethical behaviors of leader(s), and that the processes (of meditation, methods) do not seem to live up to the promises.

6. Follower is unwilling to question or doubt the promises and processes of the leader(s). Rather the follower assumes: “There IS something wrong, missing, or corrupt within me, which is beyond my awareness and control”.

7. Follower then redoubles efforts to submit to leader(s) and keeps on with processes, that includes meditation practices.

Martin Brigden, Escape, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Martin Brigden, Escape, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

This seven-step process often repeats in an endless loop. Submission and psychological enslavement continues until the follower questions or doubts the underlying premises and promises of the leader(s) and the methods, such as meditation. By questioning and doubting the leader(s), followers may be able to break away from their psychological enslavement.

Breaking Away

Two ways followers may escape psychological enslavement to leader(s):

  1. Attain the same, exalted status of the leader(s). A follower-turned-leader gains absolute authority over followers. The so-called “escape” from psychologically enslaved-follower to enslaver-leader only shifts from being the enslaved to the enslaver within the hierarchical, cultic system. Becoming an exalted leader then only perpetrates, and doesn’t break one away, from the system itself of psychological enslavement.

2. Doubt the leader(s) and question the processes of meditation and so on. To escape enslavement, the follower questions or rejects the premises that “there is something wrong with me”. The doubting follower challenges the premises that the leader(s) are perfect and infallible. During the process of questioning and doubting the follower challenges the promises of the leader(s) and processes, such as meditation methods. It may take a long-time, if ever, for many serious followers to break away from their psychological enslavement.

While I was a decade and half in the ashrams of the Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order, I began a years-long process of questioning and doubting the leader(s) and their promises.

During my last two years in the ashram, I had what I would call “self-realization” experiences–psychological liberation and enlightenment insights–that required no validation from leaders.

The psychological enslavement to cultic leaders noted above is not limited to people who live inside ashrams or meditation centers. (I know former SRF monastics and lay members that remain psychologically enslaved to the leader(s), to the promises and the processes that include meditation techniques).

As more former followers, like myself, speak out about their experiences inside these groups with these kinds of leaders, we will educate others. As more people recognize these manipulations, methods, and processes, my hope is that others will find meaning in their own experiences and break away from psychological enslavement.

I welcome your critiques and comments. Through your feedback I learn and grow, and improve these posts.

Notes

1 Cult definition, Collins English Dictionary. http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/cult

2 Shaw, D., Traumatic Abuse in Cults: A Psychoanalytic Perspective, Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2003, p 105

3 Kramer, J. and Alstad, D., The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Paperback, p 33

4 Stein, A., Cult Attraction is Not a Problem of Logic, Fair Observer, Jul 21 2015

2 comments

  1. SkepticMeditations

    @uwsboi14:

    I agree with you that “Step 6 is the most crucial step…”.

    And, “Maybe there needs to be mention of how the leader instills fear of all things outside of the proscribed system of thought.”.

    Yes, I will write more posts about the psychological pitfalls that keeps meditators trapped inside the closed feedback loop.

    Thanks!

  2. uwsboi14

    Excellent post, Scott. Step 6 is the most crucial step it seems to me. It is the moment when one assigns all blame to oneself and takes that self-destructive turn back into the loop instead of trusting the doubts and new information. Maybe there needs to be mention of how the leader instills fear of all things outside of the proscribed system of thought. It possible to see the flaws in something, but be too afraid of alternatives and therefore stick to the well worn path regardless.

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>