Sleep Paralysis In Yoga Tradition

What is sleep paralysis? How is the experience interpreted in yoga tradition?

Every night we suffer from sleep paralysis. But we are not always aware of it. Sleep paralysis occurs while we are half awake and half asleep and we can’t move.

“Always when I’m going off to sleep. It’s pretty much the same”, Ted, a 35 year old British psychologist described his experiences of sleep paralysis. “My eyes are open and I get the sense something in the room is happening. Then a shape gathers. A presence. I can feel its weight. I have multisensory sensations. I feel like my body is floating. I can’t move it. I try to make a sound in my throat. I can’t. As I keep struggling to cry out, eventually scream out and that wakes me up and then I can move my body.”[1]

As I was thinking about writing this post, I kept hearing readers tell me, “You don’t know that sleep paralysis is similar to yoga meditation experiences. Who are you to speculate on the traditions and experiences of yogis, saints, and mystics?” I had my doubts about writing this post. While what I write may not adequately address all aspects of sleep paralysis and interpretations, I feel it is important anyway to write this article.

In between sleeping and waking, in this “threshold consciousness”, are a variety of mental phenomena that includes lucid dreaming, hallucinations, and sleep paralysis. I assert the sleep paralysis may be, in yoga tradition, what is interpreted as union with god, soul, or spirit. But more on that later. First, let’s return to what happens in our body during sleep paralysis.

What Happens During Sleep Paralysis?

While sleeping, your body alternates between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. One REM and one NREM sleep cycle lasts about 90 minutes. First is the NREM sleep cycle which takes as much as 75% of your overall sleep time. During NREM sleep, your body relaxes and rejuvenates itself. At the end of NREM, your sleep shifts to REM. Your eyes move rapidly, dreams occur while the rest of your body remains very relaxed. During REM your muscles are “switched off”. If you become aware and interrupt before the REM cycle is finished, you may notice you cannot move or speak. This is sleep paralysis.[2]

In Something Wicked This Way Comes: Causes and Interpretations of Sleep Paralysis Chris French, Professor and Psychologist at University of London, identified three psychological factors in the experience of sleep paralysis:

  1. Intruder — The person may sense a presence, hear voices or strange sounds, and see lights or visions. In a word–hallucinate.
  2. Incubus[3] — The experiencer may feel pressure, be unable to voluntarily control breathing, may panic creating a feeling of suffocation or difficulty breathing.
  3. Unusual body experiences — Sensations of floating, flying, or hovering, and out of body experiences. Proprioception, self-orientation within the body, is missing or out of order.

Sleep paralysis may evoke feelings of bliss or terror. The experience may be interpreted differently by different cultures or traditions. In Hinduism, Viśvarūpa is Sanskrit for “sacred terror”. Whether the experience is terrible or joyful is irrelevant. It’s the tradition and the interpretation that frames it as either sleep paralysis or sacred yoga.

How is sleep paralysis experience interpreted by yoga meditation tradition?

Narada prostrating before Vishvamurti, Public Domain.
Narada prostrating before Vishvamurti, Public Domain.

Yoga Tradition and Sleep Paralysis Experience

Famed yogi-guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, taught his students a “Definite Technique of Attaining Ecstasy:

“As you are falling asleep each night, keep your eyes half-open and focused at the point between the eyebrows; consciously enjoy in a relaxed nonchalant way the state at the border of joyous sleep as long as you can hold it without falling asleep, and you will learn to go into ecstasy at will. . . Try to remain in this state from five minutes to one hour, then you will know about yoga: conscious communion of your soul with God.”[4]

The practice of the yogi-guru’s technique (above) could result in what Western medicine and psychology says is sleep paralysis. Yogananda interprets sleep paralysis experience as “yoga: conscious communion of your soul with God”.

Another aspect of sleep paralysis which overlaps with yoga tradition is samadhi. Samadhi is by tradition the supreme goal of yoga (union or communion with God).

Let’s examine some similarities between so-called yoga samadhi and sleep paralysis.

Similarities Between Yoga Samadhi and Sleep Paralysis

When compared with sleep paralysis we find many similarities between yoga samadhi experiences, which include:

  • Immobilized body, unable to move
  • Altered or heightened awareness
  • Heard voices, sounds
  • Saw shapes, visions
  • Sensed presence
  • Disabled physical senses
  • Labored breathing
  • Panicked to breathe, speak, or move
  • Felt terror[5] or bliss (depending on experiencer interpretation)
  • Sensed floating, levitating
  • Hovered, outside, or “above” the physical body

To be aware is to experience. No awareness, no experience. After awareness of experience comes interpretation.

For instance, you become aware you can feel or control your “breathing”. Terror sets in. You panic. You gasp for breath. Or, you feel detached from your physical body. You feel bliss or terror.

I had panicked during yoga meditation. My awareness just landed on “not breathing” after feeling “outside” my body. I panicked and gasped for air. Coming back to voluntary control of my body.

An American-born swami-monk lectured around the world about the blessings of yoga meditation. The first time he practiced his guru’s yoga meditation technique, he told audiences he panicked when he became aware he was “not breathing”. Gasping finally resulted in sucking air into his lungs. Immediately the swami said he was brought back into his body consciousness.

Personal experiences like these are anecdotes, not proof the phenomena are objectively real. Returning now to the anecdotes reported by yogis and experiences of sleep paralysis patients, let’s examine the differences.

Differences Between Yoga Samadhi and Sleep Paralysis

Differences between sleep paralysis and yoga samadhi, includes:

Sleep Paralysis Yoga samadhi
Very common. More than 3 million US cases per year.[6] Legendary, mythical claims and anecdotal stories not well-documented nor verified by independent researchers.
Reproduced, well-documented by independent researchers in various lab experiments. Not reproduced, not well-documented by independent research or lab experiments.
Mechanism fairly well-understood for how and why physical and psychological phenomena occurs during half awake, half asleep state. No “samadhi” or superconscious awareness has been clearly explained in a verifiable, credible way. No scientifically known mechanism for how and why a superconsciousness exists or is actually different from non-supernatural brain states, such as sleep paralysis.
Recorded durations of seconds or minutes. Said to last minutes, hours, days, years, or for eternity (when one reaches godhood or cosmic consciousness). No well-documented cases from independent researchers or experiments.

What can sleep paralysis teach us about yoga traditions?

When we compare sleep paralysis and yoga samadhi experiences we find many similarities. Not all phenomena related to so-called yoga samadhi and sleep paralysis experiences are the same. Paramahansa Yogananda’s “Definite Technique of Attaining Ecstasy” seems to be yoga method to induce sleep paralysis. The ecstasy or experience that Yogananda and yoga tradition may interpret as supreme yoga–union or communion with God–physicians and psychologists may call sleep paralysis.

Have you experienced sleep paralysis? Yoga “samadhi”? What do you think of similarities or differences between the interpretations by yoga tradition?

Notes

1 Professor Chris French, Something Wicked This Way Comes: Causes and Interpretations of Sleep Paralysis. Presentation at Psychology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London, Oct. 11, 2009. Accessed Aug. 30, 2016, https://vimeo.com/11459308.

2 “Sleep Paralysis”. WebMD, accesssed Aug. 30, 2016, http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/sleep-paralysis#1-3.

3 “Sleep Paralysis”. Rationalwiki, accessed Sep. 1, 2016, http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Sleep_paralysis. In Medieval Europe demons called incubus were said to attack women and succubus to attack men, usually sexually. Different cultures interpret differently but usually mythologically the experiences of sleep paralysis, altered awareness, and yoga samadhi.

4  Paramahansa Yogananda, Self-Realization Fellowship Lesson 154. Yogananda refers to “conscious” sleep throughout his yoga lessons, “The soul may use its intuition together with life force released from bodily activities during the relaxation of sleep to project true visions on the screen of the subconscious. Visions may show events to come, as the soul can use its intuitive power to “photograph” future happenings. But a vision does not appear until sufficient energy has been relaxed from the heart and from the ordinary waking consciousness (as in sleep) to project it”, Lesson 73. And, “This detachment of the mind from body consciousness [during yoga meditation] is similar to that experienced in sleep, except that one remains consciously aware”, Summary Lesson.

5 “Visvarupa”. Wikipedia, accessed Sep. 1, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vishvarupa. Bliss and terror are bedfellows in Hindu mythology. Viśvarūpa is Sanskrit for “sacred terror”. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu bible, Lord Krishna reveals to his chief-disciple, Arjuna, the Viśvarūpa experience. Arjuna is terrified by Viśvarūpa, said to the universal form of Hindu God(s).
6 “Sleep Paralysis”. Mayo Clinic and Google Search, accessed Aug. 30, 2016,  https://g.co/kgs/3Vw3IB.

Effects of Meditation: Normal or Supernatural?

Meditation is an example of how our experience changes as our understanding changes. Often meditation has been thought of as producing paranormal or supernatural experiences. As we learn more about the brain, psychology, and physiology in meditation, its effects are seen as normal or natural, though some experiences may seem extraordinary.

What are the effects of meditation on our senses and perceptions?

In this post we’ll explore the effects of meditation and discuss three psycho-physiological concepts—habituation, inhibition, and proprioception–and how understanding these three concepts can change our understanding of the effects of meditation from something supernatural to natural.

Let’s begin our discussion with how meditation is monotonous stimulation and involves habituation.

Monotonous stimulation and meditation

Our nervous system is designed to respond to stimulus change. After awhile we stop noticing continuous, unvarying stimulus. The diminished sensitivity of our senses to a constant stimulus is known as habituation.1 For example, when we first hang a new picture on our bedroom wall we are stimulated upon entering the room and notice the new picture. After a while though we don’t notice the picture at all. Habituation is when we cease to respond to stimulus after repeated exposures.

Most of meditation practice involves monotonous stimulation. Meditation involves habituation. The meditator sits in one pose, concentrates on or repeats one thought, mantra, visual image, breath, and so on. With habituation, with unvarying, monotonous stimulus over time our nervous system “habituates” and ceases to be aware of the stimulus. Excessive practice of meditation can produce a physical, mental, and emotional withdrawal from people or activity.

Sometimes with withdrawal, depersonalization-derealization occurs when you persistently or repeatedly have the feeling that you’re observing yourself from outside your body or that you have a sense that things around you aren’t real, or both. [Read my post on Depersonalization and Derealization.]

Later we discuss how habituation relates to understanding meditation experiences. Next we explore inhibition and meditation.

Inhibition and meditation

The mental ability to tune out stimuli that are irrelevant to the physical or mental task at hand is called inhibition. Occasionally when concentrating intently on one task at hand you may have noticed you forget time, space, and may not even hear noises such as a doorbell or phone ring. Cognitive inhibition can be experienced wholly or partially, intentionally or unintentionally.2 Inhibition, in physiological psychology, refers to the suppression of neural electrical activity.3 Inhibitory neurons, inhibit or block the activity of other neurons. Inhibitory neurons, writes Andrew Neher in Paranormal and Transcendental Experience, in essence cancel our awareness of a stimulus.4

Meditation practice can produce habituation and inhibition. Adept meditators may, through inhibition and habituation, be unresponsive physically and psychologically to stimuli such as loud noises that normally would startle or cause involuntary reaction. A coveted by-product and goal of meditation practitioners is sensory withdrawal and deprivation.

Sufi dancing, photo by madmonk on Flickr
Sufi dancing, photo by madmonk on Flickr

Sensory withdrawal and deprivation

Sensory isolation, similar to sensory deprivation—such as floatation tanks, extreme fasting and sexual abstinence—can produce altered states of awareness and transcendental experiences. Short-term sessions of sensory deprivation may be relaxing and conducive to meditation. But extended sessions of sensory deprivation may result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, and depression.5

Meditation, like other religious rituals such as holy rolling (whirling dervishes), chanting, and prayer with repetitive and monotonous stimulation, can produce habituation, inhibition, and sensory withdrawal and can produce anxiety, hallucinations, and bizarre thoughts.

A simple experiment may demonstrate to you the effects of habituation and inhibition: Stare intently and unblinkingly at one still object for a few seconds or a minute. As your gaze remains fixed on a singular stationary object without moving your eyes you may produce the sensation of hovering outside your body or expanding into space outside of your body. Through non-blinking, non-moving of your eyeballs you can maintain an unvarying and monotonous stimulus and may feel an altered state of awareness. Your location of your mind and body in space—proprioception—has been altered.

Out of body, out of mind—proprioception and meditation.

Our perception of body location and movement in space relies on receptive sensations—proprioceptors—“in the inner ear and in the muscles, tendons and joints of the body”.6 The perception of stimuli related to one’s own body posture, position, equilibrium, and internal condition or sensation is proprioception.

Juliana Coutinho, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Juliana Coutinho, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

People who have proprioceptive disorders have difficulty knowing where their body is in space, difficulty understanding physical boundaries when interacting with other people or objects. When our proprioception is altered we may also lose our sense of gravity, feel a weightlessness or extreme heaviness of our body.

When one or more of our senses—even one eye or ear—is not functioning properly we lose our sense of balance and distance from objects and ourselves. We may bump into objects, lose our sense of direction in space, or may fall down or injure ourselves. When I used to wear contact lenses to correct my nearsightedness, occasionally I would get an eye infection, pink-eye. The contact lense would agitate my already irritated, infected pink-eye. I would then remove the lense from my infected eye and keep one lense in my other eye. Though I could see fair with one lense only, my ability to judge distance between my body and objects in space—my proprioception—was altered. Bumping my head in doorways or smashing into furniture was not uncommon when I only could see well out of one eye, when my proprioception was altered. Maybe observers thought I was drunk or a clutz?

Natural or supernatural effects of meditation?

During meditation, when the body is still and when habituation and inhibition are operating, proprioceptors sometimes stop signaling a sense of body and mind location. When that happens our awareness of body and mind changes. We may feel a sense of “self” expansion, levitation, or a “pure” consciousness detached from or hovering outside the body.7 You may have experienced this feeling when falling to sleep. Or, as you wake up and before your awareness or sensation has fully returned to your body.

Sleep paralysis is a temporary inability to move or speak when waking or falling asleep. The Mayo Clinic estimates there are more than 3 million US cases of sleep paralysis each year.8 Perhaps you have experienced sleep paralysis. I have. The experience can be terrifying. As I lay awake I panicked: paralyzed, unable to move, a lump of flesh in bed. Within moments though I was able to muster the will to move my limbs. What a relief to be able to move again.

Some people may interpret temporary paralysis, habituation, and proprioception imbalances as “out of body” experiences, astral projection, or altered states of awareness.

Meditation experiences as natural phenomenon

If our premises are that meditation is a “gateway” to supernatural or paranormal dimensions then that’s what we interpret or make our experiences mean. But, when we understand natural, ordinary sensations—such as habituation, inhibition, and proprioception—we are less prone to interpret these sensations as paranormal or supernatural.

Probably so-called samadhi, nirvana, or cosmic consciousness experiences are partially or wholly caused by a combination of habituation, inhibition, and proprioception imbalances.

The psycho-physiological concepts of habituation, inhibition, and proprioception don’t explain all the effects of meditation. Mystery not fully solved. However, by understanding these concepts we may better understand many meditation experiences as natural phenomenon. Through understanding habituation, inhibition, and proprioception we have alternative and plausible explanations for what many believe are paranormal and supernatural effects of meditation practices.

Notes

Top image credit, Ryan Somma, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
1 Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination. New York: Dover Publications, 1980 and 1990. pg 25
2 “Cognitive inhibition.” Wikipedia. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_inhibition.
3 “Inhibition.” Britannica. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://www.britannica.com/topic/inhibition-psychology.
4 Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination. New York: Dover Publications, 1980 and 1990. pg 25
5 “Sensory deprivation.” Wikipedia. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensory_deprivation
6 Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination. New York: Dover Publications, 1980 and 1990. pg 25
7 Ibid.
8 “Sleep Paralysis.” Mayo Clinic and Google. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://g.co/kgs/z2HyyL.

Motivations of Meditation Practitioners

By examining certain types of meditation techniques it’s possible to gauge the motivations of its practitioners. Imagine, for example, that scientists or sages came up with the following devices or techniques. In each pair, which one do you think would be more popular?

a) A meditation device that helps you gain wealth, repairs broken relationships, and grants peace and wisdom.
b) A device that reminds you of each of your personal flaws.

a) A meditation device that projects the realistic illusion that your self, your life, is eternally peaceful and blissful.
b) A device that projects the realistic illusion that your self, your life, is a death march to oblivion and nothingness.

a) A special meditation device that you use that guarantees a happy ending regardless of what you think or how much you suffer.
b) A device you use that guarantees nothing regardless of what you think and how much you use it.

a) A special device that turns off external noises and static and turns on internal quiet and serenity.
b) A special device that amplifies noises and static and turns up internal disquiet and conflict.

These are all features of the same device—meditation technique or practice—but you will have no trouble picking which of each pair sells better. That’s because you already have a good sense of what people want, what they want to believe and what they prefer to avoid and ignore.

Our ability to predict a device’s popularity is based on an intuitive grasp of the human condition.1 The degree of consistence with human preference, more than the devices themselves, determines which devices succeed in the human marketplace.

To put it another way, designing successful products is the art of catering to human psyches—our wants, fears, and needs—and avoiding their opposites—our flaws, suffering, and internal insecurities.

Any wonder that meditation products have become so popular? Gurus and marketers know how to cater to our human condition by giving us devices that promise to overcome our fears, suffering, and grant us power.

Alex Martinez, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Alex Martinez, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A convertible sports car, for example, is marketed to us with the promise that the little red roadster will boost our self-esteem, impress others, and make us happy. Yet, we know the little red roadster could crash, injure or kill, and drain our pocket books. The other side to the device is seldom presented or sold.

Meditation devices are heavily promoted but seldom presented as coming with endless conflict with a restless monkey mind, petty thoughts, and occasional psychotic episodes.

Yes, some people may find meditation beneficial. Yet, there is no denying, as we have discovered on this website, there is a dark- and dangerous-side to meditation techniques and organizations. To emphasize only the upside of meditation devices—as most gurus and meditation groups do—is to pander to the human condition and prey on vulnerable and gullible believers. The way to counter this is to think critically and skeptically about the claims of meditation promoters and believers.

Notes
Image credit: Motivations (scrabble), Nichole Burrows, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
1 The inspiration for this post came from Kentaro Toyama’s Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, PublicAffairs, New York:NY, 2015.

Guru versus Educator

What’s the difference between a guru and an educator?

A guru fashions a doctrine and disciples. A guru dictates the questions and answers which are permitted. Disciples are discouraged from independent thought. Their job is to distribute the doctrine and to allure more disciples. Gurus demand obedience and compliance.

Educators, on the contrary, foster learning and encourage questioning and searching for answers. Students are allowed to engage in independent thought. Unexpected answers or questions are welcomed by educators as part of the process of learning and discovery. Educators stimulate creativity, skepticism, and intellectual explorations.1

Gurus seldom, if ever, doubt their doctrines and tend to see themselves as infallible. Educators, on the other hand, are doubtful about many of their beliefs. Educators lack absolute certainty. Gurus are absolutely certain of their doctrine.

Adi Shankara with Disciples, by Raja Ravi Varma (1904)
Adi Shankara with Disciples, by Raja Ravi Varma (1904)

Guru behaviors

It’s important to define words that often have multiple meanings. A popular definition is that a guru fits the East-Asian notion of an enlightened spiritual teacher. Most important, is not the personality or person, but the actions and attitudes that differentiate an educator from a guru.

Below are two examples using different Eastern, Hindu-inspired gurus.

When a visitor named Shyam Basu asked [guru] Ramakrishna: “How can you say that sin is punishable when you say that He is doing everything?”. The [guru] was cheesed off and quipped: “What calculating cunning (sonar bener buddhi)! You asshole (Ore podo), just eat the mango. What will you gain by counting the trees, branches, and leaves in the grove?”2 [Read more quotes and a brief biography in my post Ramakrishna Paramahamsa: Smoking, Cussing Godman?]

To a dissatisfied student, [the guru] Paramahansa Yogananda said: “Don’t doubt, or God will remove you from the hermitage. So many come here looking for miracles. But masters do not display the powers God has given them unless He commands them to do so. Most men don’t understand that the greatest miracle of all would be the transformation of their lives by humble obedience to His will.”3

The behaviors and attitudes expressed by these two East-Asian, Hindu-inspired god-men is emblematic of gurus. It doesn’t matter whether a person is popularly called a guru or disciple. What matters most is how a person acts and how disciples surrender and obey.

Donald_Trump_by_Gage_Skidmore_6-minMany more gurus than educators

A guru aims to produce disciples who obey and comply. Disciples are discouraged from independent thought. Independence is discouraged as being egoic, rebellious, and “doing your own thing”—opposing the guru and doctrine. Educators encourage students to question and search for answers. When it no longer serves, doctrine may be discarded. An educator aims to stimulate creativity, skepticism, and intellectual explorations.

In many schools teachers are more like gurus than educators. In politics many citizens act more like disciples. Making distinctions—between guru versus educator—is important. It illustrates and impacts the way we think and act in daily life, in private and public.

Notes
Top photo credit, walking buddha and disciples, by AntanO – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39371295.

1 Many of the distinctions of guru versus educator made in this post were gleaned from Russell L. Ackoff’s, Differences That Make a Difference, London: UK, Triarchy Press, 2010.

2 Quote of Ramakrishna Paramahansa from Narasingha P. Sil’s,
Ramakrishna Revisited: A New Biography, Lanham: MD, University Press of America, 1998, p. 163.

3 Quote of Paramahansa Yogananda from Sayings of Paramahansa Yogananda, Los Angeles: CA, Self-Realization Fellowship, 1980.

How to program disciples to a guru’s worldview

Disguised in political, spiritual, or mystical garb, a psychological contagion breeds self-mistrust, guilt, and makes one susceptible to authoritarian control.

The Guru Papers present a series of remarkable essays that challenge “unchallengeable” authorities and the age-old human quest for saviors, mystical enlightenment, and the guru-disciple relationship.

The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power is a book by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad. This post outlines the book’s main thesis. First, are two-to-three paragraphs about the two authors background in yoga, academia, and hippy culture. Next, we explore why this book is more than about gurus, but encompasses authoritarianism in politics, society, even love relationships. Richard, a former disciple and I share our personal anecdotes about the harms of surrendering to a guru. Next to last, is a critique of the book and conclusion, followed finally by a brief announcement.

Guru-buster authors

Joel Kramer started teaching yoga in the late 1960s at Esalen, a new age, hippy retreat nestled on rugged bluffs overlooking California’s Big Sur coastline. Born in 1937 on Coney Island into non-observant Jewish family, Kramer graduated in philosophy and psychology at NYU and Columbia, and later moved to Berkeley in 1963. Swept up in hippy counterculture, in the mid-1960’s he also lived with psychedelic-guru Timothy Leary in Millbrook, New York. Kramer continued to teach yoga around the world and at Esalen into the 1980s. He eventually stopped teaching yoga after students kept treating him as if he was their guru. His first book, The Passionate Mind: A Manual for Living Creatively with One’s Self (1974), is a collection of his talks influenced by the teachings of J. Krishnamurti, who as a child was groomed by the Theosophical Society to be a World Teacher but later rejected the organization, to independently lead his own spiritual-intellectual followers.

Diana Alstad, Kramer’s life partner since 1974, was born in 1944 in Minnesota into a Lutheran family. Before discovering yoga, she received a PhD from Yale in 1971, was professor of humanities at Duke University, and taught the first Women’s Studies courses at Yale and Duke. Alstad co-founded New Haven Women’s Liberation in 1968, and was on the board of the Veteran Feminists of America from 1998 to 2004. Her article “Exploring Relationships: Interpersonal Yoga” (Yoga Journal, 1979) created a foundation for the Yoga of Relationship by extending Kramer’s yogic approach to the social arena, a modality they continue to teach.

Together, Kramer and Alstad, wrote two books: The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (1993) and The Passionate Mind Revisited: Expanding Personal and Social Awareness (2009).

More than a book about gurus

More than just a book about gurus, The Guru Papers unmask the philosophical and psychological dangers of surrendering to anyone who positions themselves as knowing what is best for others. Religion (including Buddhism and Hinduism), meditation, 12-step addiction programs, and even the concept of unconditional love are revealed as tools for authoritarian control. Gurus, as the epitome of unchallengeable authority, pervade society, politics, and religions. How so?

At the heart of most spiritual and ideological worldviews is a moral code of self-sacrifice, what Kramer and Alstad assert is a “renunciate worldview”. This renunciate worldview includes voluntary self-control and is the means of authoritarian manipulation of its followers. Being “good” requires sacrificing self-interest to some “higher” authority or power, which conveniently is defined by the guru, Church or State. The guru, then, in this context is any unchallengeable authority: whether political, ideological, or spiritual.

Looking to saviors or holders of special wisdom as the path to lead humanity (or oneself) to salvation or survival, argue Kramer and Alstad, is childish. People who distrust themselves, argue Kramer and Alstad, willingly surrender and obey authorities who promise salvation and survival. Manipulation is easy when disciples surrender and obey a higher authority who claims to know what is best for followers.

The epitome of surrender and authoritarian power is the guru-disciple relationship. Kramer and Alstad argue that the guru-disciple relationship demonstrates “what it means to trust another more than oneself”[1]. When people distrust themselves they are easy prey for manipulation. In the guise of self-realization or spiritual liberation for the follower, the guru demands complete surrender of disciples.

Anecdotes: Guru, agent of truth or spiritual thief?

My personal anecdote: For 14 years I lived as a renunciate disciple in the San Diego and Los Angeles ashrams of famous guru-yogi Paramahansa Yogananda. The yoga-meditation guru proclaimed, “There is complete surrender, there is no compulsion, when a disciple accepts the guru’s training”[2]. According to the Self-Realization Fellowship, the guru’s worldwide organization, the guru is a living embodiment of truth and “an agent of salvation appointed by God in response to a devotee’s incessant petitions for release from the bondage of matter”. And, the guru is supposedly the best of givers. I believed these claims all for decades, until I stepped outside the system of beliefs and challenged the so-called “truth”.

Richard recently became a former-disciple of guru-Yogananda and a subscriber to Skeptic Meditations blog shared: “It’s very satisfying to reconnect with myself again. I am taking voice [singing] lessons. . . The guru’s professed connection to God steals from the disciple the disciple’s own experience of life. It is the worst kind of spiritual theft. The disciple’s own spiritual experiences are stolen from him and instead credited as blessings from the guru-god. The disciple can own nothing. And when one can’t own anything, not even oneself, the connection to life and others is completely severed.”

Under the guise of objective truth

Under the guise of objective truth, assert Kramer and Alstad, the seeker finds “the age-old ploy of authoritarian indoctrination: A worldview is presented by an unchallengeable authority as the truth to be found. Then practices are given that reprogram and condition the mind to that viewpoint”[3]. The guru-disciple relationship dismantles self-trust–instills doubt in follower’s own senses, intellect, and feelings–and reprograms disciples with the guru’s worldview through indoctrination, esoteric teachings and meditation practices.

Critiques and conclusions

The Guru Papers is a patchwork of essays sketched by the authors in 1984 “as a dalliance”. The book has a few irritating flaws. The chapters titled Satanism and the Worship of the Forbidden and The Authoritarian Roots of Addiction “dallied” perhaps too long into Satanism, 12 step programs, and Alcoholics Anonymous. The footnotes referencing Control throughout the book were a planned but unpublished text by the authors. Why did the authors keep these footnote references to Control? To tease and confuse? Publish Control or abolish the dead-end footnotes. But, overall the author’s writing style and tone are straightforward, conversational, and non-technical.

The assertions of Kramer and Alstad are clear, compelling, and incisive. The Guru Papers’ main thesis is that much of humanity or society is deeply conditioned to seek and to obey unchallengeable authorities. And, that surrender and obedience is what keeps humanity from the intelligence needed for solving human and world problems. Will humanity ever get “outside” or “higher” help? Not likely. The solution, say Kramer and Alstad, is moving beyond childish following of authoritarian saviors and for individuals to take personal responsibility for solving world and human problems. The Guru Papers unmask and decode authoritarian power which pervades society, love, and daily life.

Announcement for Skeptic Meditations subscribers

June through July 2016 I took a “sabbatical” from blog posting for personal and professional reasons. After two and half years of regular posting of blog articles, I felt it was time to step back and to stew–creatively and intellectually–on what might be next for you, me, and Skeptic Meditations. My hope is that I’ll be able to post new content regularly and get your feedback.

You have discovered, during my two month sabbatical, several new pages were added to Skeptic Meditations website: including new Home, new Start Here, and new subscription/follow options. Check these out, if you haven’t yet. Please don’t hesitate to float me your comments or emails when you discover anything that could be improved, challenged, or elaborated on by your own comments and critiques.

Scott

Notes
1 The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, Frog Books, 1998, p. xiii
2 The Role of a Guru in One’s Spiritual Search, Self-Realization Fellowship website. What is one searching for anyway? The guru-authority instills the desire for the objects of the search. Then sells the disciple the methods (meditation, lessons, and trainings) to gain and keep followers. What proof that the guru is a holder of special wisdom? “Wise” words and extraordinary promises (sometimes claims of miracles) are typically all that is offered.
3 The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, Frog Books, 1998, p. 128