In the ashram1, spiritual advancement was measured by the position of the person within the organization.
All within the organizational hierarchy got feelings of specialness and authority from position and proximity to the leader.
Self-Realization Fellowship claims2 that the organization will always be guided by God-realized people, and that disciples can always be assured of the direction of their leaders.
At the SRF Headquarters, the ashram atop Mt. Washington in Los Angeles, people got promoted on loyalty and obedience to the guru-leader and the President of SRF. Obedient disciples were rewarded with position and higher rank within the organization.
Diagram of the ashram spiritual-corporate hierarchy
A spiritual-corporate caste system: This spiritual-corporate hierarchy, which I am familiar with from the SRF ashram or monastery, mirrors the horrific Indian-Hindu caste system: the Guru-Master is the highest or Brahmin caste; the Pretenders to Throne, close disciples, are the Kshatriyas (warrior) class; the Ministers are the Vaishyas (merchants or landowners); the Servants represent the Shudras (subordinates to all the other upper castes); and finally, the Untouchables are the lowly, outsiders of this hierarchy.
Climbing the Spiritual-Corporate Ladder
The guru, infallible Master-leader is at the top of the power pyramid. The Master-leader has absolute authority over everyone within the organization. To question the infallibility of the leader is seen as a sign of egoism, of disloyalty and disobedience to the leader and organization.
Seldom is there open, honest communication between disciples within the hierarchy.
There is underlying fear of punishment that keeps everyone in line: fear of being withheld any rewards and attentions, of displeasing and being banished to a remote outpost, or of even being expelled or excommunicated from the ashram. Disciples within the hierarchy are starved for attention and affection from the leader. Rewards of position and rank are seen as a sign of pleasing the leader and of spiritual advancement.
Directly below the Master-leader is an inner cadre of elite disciples. This small, close circle, sometimes referred to as “advanced” disciples or directors, are one among them who is likely to someday inherit the spiritual mantle and the entire organization after the Master-leader is no longer physically present.
Below the inner circle of elite disciples are ministers and administers who filter, interpret, and communicate the Master-leader’s commands and “teachings” to rank and file, lower-level disciples.
Persons furthest from the Master-leader, those at the bottom of the ladder, are either new members or considered not spiritually advanced enough to rise to positions of authority within the organization.
The lower-level disciples, the majority of followers, are seldom able to be near the Master-leader, who typically is aloof and indifferent to their survival, needs, and problems. Despite the apparent indifference of the Master-leader, most disciples are convinced that spiritual blessings of the Master-leader trickles down from top to bottom of the organizational hierarchy.
Loyal and obedient disciples are willing to sacrifice all, even life, to uphold the Master-leader and the hierarchical organization.
All persons outside or disloyal to the hierarchy are considered either inferior, not intelligent, or not spiritually advanced, and are likely lost in ego, delusion (Maya), or evil.
Position within the organization, climbing the spiritual-corporate ladder, generates feelings of specialness, power, and authority for the disciples.
1 The Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order has half a dozen ashram centers in Southern California. It is in these that I lived for more than 14 years as a renunciant, monastic-disciple. For a brief description about me and why I left read my About page.
2 Supposedly said by Paramahansa Yogananda, according to Mrinalini Mata, current President of SRF as quoted in Transcendent In America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion, Lola Williamson, NY University Press, 2010, p 63
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].
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):
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.”
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.
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.
Two ways followers may escape psychological enslavement to leader(s):
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.
1 Cult definition, Collins English Dictionary. http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/cult
Many people believe false premises about meditation. Some keep meditating for years, handing over control to teacher, guru, philosophy or religion.
In the present post, it is argued that there are implicit premises critical to why many people meditate. Examples of these premises are provided. The implication is that the meditation practitioner must believe in the reality of these premises, while at the same time these premises are actually beyond the awareness and the verification of the practitioner. Therefore, the meditator relies on a given teacher, guru, philosophy or religion to validate the reality of meditation experiences. The conclusion is these premises along with meditation techniques are a method of psychological control that keeps the practitioner dependent on the given teacher, guru, philosophy or religion.
To keep practicing meditation techniques many people believe in one or more of the following premises:
“You are unaware. Meditation is the way to unbroken awareness. If you are not fully aware, keep meditating.
You are god but don’t know it. Meditation is the path to know you are god. If you don’t know you are god, keep meditating.
You are asleep (ignorant of your delusion) and don’t know it. Meditation is the way to wake up from delusion. If you are in delusion, keep meditating.
You are suffering. Meditation is the path to transcend suffering. If you are suffering, keep meditating.
You are Nothing, the Void. Meditation is the path to realize you are Nothing, the Void. If you don’t know you are Nothing, the Void, keep meditating.
Each of these premises implies that “there is something wrong, missing, or corrupt within you, which is beyond your awareness and control.”1
These premises are beyond the ordinary verification of the practitioner. The supposed way to verify if these premises are true is by validation from the teacher, guru, philosophy or religion. The practitioner must hand over self-validation to the teacher, guru, philosophy or religion that implanted these unverifiable premises in the first place.
Are these premises true? Who decides when the desired outcomes have been attained?
If these premises were true, then we would expect to find millions, if not billions, of people since the Buddha (500 BCE) to today to have ended their suffering or to be walking around as god or gods. These premises appear to be false. The premise and experiments that meditation techniques can end suffering or transform people into infallible gods has failed. With meditation techniques we find what we would expect to find if the above premises were indeed false. We rely not on self but on external authority for self-validation.
It was argued there are implicit premises critical to why many people meditate. Examples of these premises were shown. The implication is that the meditation practitioner must believe in the reality of the accepted premise, while at the same time the premise is beyond the awareness and the verification of the practitioner. As a result, the meditator actually relies on the given teacher, guru, philosophy or religion to validate the reality of meditation experiences. The conclusion is that the premises held by many meditation practitioners create a dependence on and a hand over of control to the given teacher, guru, philosophy or religion.
Many variations of the above false premises
There are many variations of the above premises. Below are some others that I filled in the blanks with:
You are ________.
Meditation is the ____________.
If you are not yet ___________, keep meditating.
path to immortality
path to breathlessness
way to transcend body/mind
path to transcend ego/self
path to pure consciousness
peace, love, joy
path to peace, love, joy
peace, love, joy
blocked life force
way to unblock/control life force
in control of life force
What other compelling premises for meditation practice could fill in those “blanks”?
1 Joslin, Bill. (2014) Duped From the Beginning slide, Interview ‘Meditation: Deconstructing Nonsense’, Gnostic Media episode #202
What many Hindu- and Buddhist-inspired meditation techniques have in common is that they involve negating thought to transcend thought.
Whether one can actually transcend or negate thought may be debatable. But these mental methods, that some claim are beneficial, even miraculous, contain contradictions and warnings.
Selflessness contains contradictions, including:
Self-identity is deconstructed and then built up using a guru’s or a group’s beliefs and worldviews;
One’s feelings are given more importance than thought. Negating thoughts may prevent the use of critical thinking which could protect one from unnecessary suggestibility and gullibility.
Valuing selflessness and denying selfishness is itself “self-centered”. Humans all are out for self-interest.
We may never know if negation of self is possible. Heck, scientists, philosophers, poets, and mystics have been debating for millennia what “self” may be. We may have many selves. Here we defined self-identity as what makes up one’s personality and sense of who and what one is at any given moment.
My decades of practice with meditation techniques demonstrated to me that thoughts are never actually transcended nor negated. The desire to permanently attain a selfless or thoughtless state of enlightenment seems to me to be a delusion, one that many gurus and groups use to lure and keep followers.
I have had many experiences in and out of sitting meditation where I felt like I was floating above my self, was bursting with love, or was one with everything. Most of these experiences occurred randomly outside of sitting meditation without any effort on my part3. Even while writing this I find that by simply thinking or imaging something intently I can experience overwhelming emotions well up from within. So-called self-transcendent experiences may occur often and may be ordinary to many people. Perhaps they are so ordinary we frequently discount them.
“Before enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water” a Zen monk supposedly told his students.
Can people transcend self using mental techniques that negate one’s thoughts? Might some gurus and groups distort people’s perceptions of the themselves to take advantage of them?
3 These so-called transcendent or mystical experiences that I have had I have interpreted in various ways at different times throughout my life. While I was fervent religious believer, I interpreted these experiences as supernatural, as a gift from god or guru. After I learned to think more critically, I have interpreted my past and present “mystical” experiences as natural, as part of being human. Just because there may not be a definitive explanation for self-transcending experiences does not give us license to say we know they have some extraordinary or supernatural cause.
When the disciple is ready (read: suggestible) the guru gives techniques that have a specified goal and predicted end result.
Followers are told they will eventually acheive, by meditating in a specific way, experiences such as:
See a white star surrounded by blue light inside a golden halo (the spiritual eye); or,
Feel subtle energies in an astral body (such as chakras or awaken kundalini); or,
Hear astral sounds or hear the cosmic sound of Om; or,
Unite their consciousness with God or feel One with everything; or,
Attain cosmic consciousness, enlightenment, nirvana, or samadhi (the states the guru supposedly has attained).
The particular promised results do not matter.
“The mind can eventually construct any image it focuses upon”, say Kramer and Alstad in The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power.
The disciple is told that regular practice of the given meditation techniques will eventually bring higher states of consciousness and possibly even the highest states of cosmic or unity consciousness, samadhi, or enlightenment1. Though, attaining these states may take years or lifetimes2.
The given meditation techniques work on dismantling self-image and self-trust3, and repeated practices help to make the disciple highly susceptible to suggestions from the guru and the group.
The most vulnerable to manipulation
The people most vulnerable to manipulation are those who are extremely serious about seeking enlightenment or those who may be psychologically unstable.
By psychologically unstable we are referring to persons who may have a tendency or history for psychological disorders, the three most common are derealization, depression, or anxiety4.
The extremely serious and the psychologically unstable devotee are at greater risk from mental techniques that are aimed at disassembling or breaking down the ego personality or self-concept. These kinds of staunch practicers may be prone to believing that hallucinations or delusions are real, glimpses of subtle dimensions or astral energies.
Devotees that are extremely serious in practice of given techniques, who surrender themselves (read: self-image) completely to, and who literally obey the instructions of the guru and group are in the process of breaking down the ego personality or self-concept. Serious disciples are those who attempt to surrender completely, to give up their will (“Thy will be done”, Matthew 6:10) to the guru, to the power of the techniques.
Psychological danger and vulnerability increases as the disciple gets “hell-bent” on emptying self of ego, in an attempt to instead get filled (read: channel) the Higher Self, guru or god. (I recall while I was a monk in the SRF order it was common to hear statements such as “when the ego steps out, god steps in” or “let go [of self] and let god [or guru]”).
The person who is neither extremely serious nor psychologically unstable often harbors reservations or doubts about the given techniques. The doubts prevent some persons from succumbing to psychological break down and submission of self that requires validation by the guru and group.
The premise or the bait of this psychological trap is that the disciple is somehow inherently broken, sinful, and blocked from receiving subtle astral energies, enlightenment, or whatever results may be promised to followers. Faithful practice of the given techniques plus obedience to the guru or master are the solution to the problems of the disciples.
False proofs given for mental techniques
The meditation techniques are often presented as “scientific” or are promised to work like mathematics. They [given techniques] can’t fail5 if practiced with complete devotion and surrender to the guru.
When the disciple has had the predicted experience, say Kramer and Alstad, the guru and the group validate her belief that the results from meditation are important6. Each experience is presented as a sign that the techniques are working and that the devotee is progressing in her given practice.
All this actually proves is that the experiences can be induced through mental techniques, and are therefore predictable7. The techniques involve mental meditations, visualizations, and emotionalizations. The experiences are not unlike the hypnotic, trance-states when a person is repeatedly made suggestible and manipulable. With an open, receptive mind the beliefs of the guru and the group are easily implanted in the disciple’s mind.
Disciples who won’t wholly commit to the given techniques or who harbor doubts seldom get the promised results, often stop their practice, and leave the group. This is why the guru and the group are designed to get and to keep disciples committed to a regular regimen of practice of the meditation techniques.
Serious practitioners and the psychologically unstable
Whereas extremely serious disciples or those who may be unstable psychologically are fairly easy to influence and are the most likely to get trapped within the closed group or belief system. This is also when we may find the serious disciple has separated herself from family, friends, or anyone who doesn’t reinforce the beliefs of the guru or group.
The serious practitioner reinforces belief in the unquestionable power of the techniques. Dissociative experiences, depersonalization and derealization8, may make a person feel like they are experiencing the world as if through glass, and are often used by the devotee as proof that the techniques are working. The disciple credits the guru and group as the source of positive feelings and dissociative experiences.
Many devotees practice meditation techniques for hours everyday for years. They convince themselves against their better judgement and justify that they are getting the promised results9.
Repetition reinforces belief in progress with meditation techniques. Yet, the only persons who may accurately interpret whether the experiences are real or not are the guru and the group. There is actually no self-validating method for the disciple to know whether her experiences are real or not. For the devotee is not self-validating but using the guru and group to validate her experiences10.
How does a disciple know for certain her experiences are actual, in reality, and not a result of fiction in her brain?
Escaping the psychological trap
The way to escape the trap of the given meditation techniques is through repeated exposure to contradictory ideas and to people from outside the belief system. Also, by temporarily or permanently stopping practice of techniques a person may be able to experience actual reality, escaping the fiction and self-doubt that is instilled by relying on techniques used by the guru and group. Finally, devotees that feel guilt or anxiety when skipping technique practice may need to get professional psychological or medical help to escape the trap.
The above are important distinctions and methods I’ve used to escape the psychological trap of meditation techniques.
Notes 1 The explanation presented in this post about the experiences in meditation are not intended to be a complete or blanket explanation of all so-called mystical experiences. What is intended here is to discuss what is likely going on psychologically, in the practitioner’s mind, that creates any seeming “results”, which are implanted into the devotee’s mind by repeated suggestions from the guru and the group. And, the controls and manipulations that result from the emphasis on mental methods that claim to bring enlightenment.
5 Paramahansa Yogananda is here quoted by a foremost-disciple, Brother Anandamoy: “And then one day [Master/Yogananda] said to me, ‘Always remember, Kriya Yoga [meditation technique], it works like mathematics. It cannot fail.’ And I thought, boy, when do you give it to me? And this is, it’s true, it’s a science, it works like mathematics, it cannot fail. And those of you who are working on it and you seem sometimes not to get much out of it, keep on! keep on! Remember this, it works like mathematics. It’s a gradual process. It’s a gradual building up of that magnet. And then some day you will see, all of a sudden you have so-called like a break through and you realize all of a sudden that magnet is strong, and that current is strong. [emphasis added]–Bro. Anandamoy, lecture, SRF audio recording, Kriya Yoga: Portal to the Infinite
6 The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power. Frog Books: Berkeley, CA, 1993, p 64
10 Bill Joslin in his video interview “Meditation: Deconstructing Nonsense“, Gnostic Media #202, at the 1:48:00 minutes mark into this video, gives a clear description of how the guru and group are the only persons who can verify the devotees’ experiences and realities.