Tagged: adverse effects

Superiority Complex of Meditators

Meditation systems often instill followers with harmful ideas of superiority.

The attitude of superiority by meditators, yogis, and avatars is morally, spiritually, and scientifically bankrupt. Violence or agression need not be overt or expressed physically to be harmful. Destructive ideas, even notions of passivity, can breed indifference and incite actions of hostility towards others, especially outsiders. Meditation and yoga, as a spiritual ideology, as a soteriology1, has embedded within it harmful superiority complexes.

This article examines harmful superiority complexes within meditation and yoga practitioners, within their systems of ideologies and soteriologies.

Soteriology is the study of religious doctrines of salvation, liberation, or release:

  • In Hinduism is the primary concept of moksha (liberation, release).
  • In Buddhism is the primary aim of liberation from suffering, ignorance, and rebirth.
  • In Mysticism, generally, is the primary notion of liberation of soul or self through union with a transcendent being.

Many meditation practitioners have one or more of these soteriological aims or goals. If not, top of mind, then somewhere in the background is the desire or seeking of liberation, release, or salvation from suffering, ignorance, and rebirth.

Nothing wrong with the desire to reduce suffering or ignorance. However, systems of yoga and meditation that promise liberation often also instill followers with superiority complexes and psychic conflicts.

Psychic conflict and superiority complexes

First, in this article we use “complex” to describe a group of emotionally laden ideas that are repressed that cause psychic conflict leading to abnormal mental states or behavior2. Superiority3 in this article is defined as an exaggerated sense of one’s importance that shows itself in the making of excessive or unjustified claims.

Superiority complex, then, is an explicit or implicit attitude of superiority that conceals feelings of inferiority and fears of failure.

Yogis, masters, and avatars (exalted persons supposed to be enlightened, compassionate, and “One” with everything) and their followers usually proclaim that yoga (their particular spiritual ideology or practice) is the highest, ultimate, and superior path for humanity.

The ideological or soteriological systems of yoga and yogi-masters typically proclaim to achieve for practitioners “Oneness”, inclusion, and compassion towards all beings. While in actuality there are internal conflicts. Everything outside their particular yoga system, tradition, or ideology is seen as inferior, illusory (Maya, Satanic), and ultimately worthless.

“Weird Statue of figure ontop of temple Batu Caves Malysia” by amanderson2 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Yoga scriptures illustrate superiority complexes

To illustrate the ideological superiority complexes embedded within yoga systems, consider the following examples:

Shiva, the Hindu god of yoga, in the Rasārṇava4 condemns all other forms of yoga or religious practice, not sparing even the six major philosophical schools of Hinduism–which allow liberation with release from the body upon death5:

“The liberation that occurs when one drops dead is indeed a worthless liberation. [For in that case] a donkey is also liberated when he drops dead. Liberation is indeed viewed in the six schools as [occurring] when one drops dead, but that [kind of] liberation is not immediately perceptible, in the way that a myrobalan fruit in the hand [is perceptible] (karamulakavat).

In The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, David Gordon White, explains that the Hindu yoga god, Shiva, continues in the Rasārṇava to emphasize that the yogic quest is superior to all other religious practices:

Liberation [arises] from gnosis (jnana), gnosis [arises] from the maintenance of the vital breaths. Therefore, where there is stability, mercury [sexual fluid of Shiva] is empowered and the body is stabilized. Through the use of mercury one rapidly obtains a body that is unaging and immortal, and concentration of the mind. He who eats calcinated mercury (mrtasutaka) truly obtains both transcendent and mundane knowledge, and his mantras are effective.

It is now known that exposure to mercury and its compounds causes hydrargyria or mercury poisoning, which may lead to peripheral neuropathy, damage to or disease affecting nerves, which may impair sensation, movement, gland or organ function, or other aspects of health, depending on the type of nerve affected. Perhaps to the Raseśvara the symptoms from mercury poisoning and nerve damage was believed to be a sign of spiritual achievement, liberation, and superiority?

Greater than followers of other paths?

The Bhagavad Gita, Song of the Lord, is a part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. In it the Lord Krishna, who is proclaimed a great yogi and avatar (Lord come to earth to save humanity), extols the superiority of yogis.

“Such an one ranks Above ascetics, higher than the wise, Beyond achievers of vast deeds! Be thou [a] Yogi, Arjuna! And of such believe, Truest and best is he who worships Me With inmost soul, stayed on My Mystery!”6

Famous yogi guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, claimed he was a channel of Krishna/Christ- Consciousness in his interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita, God Talks with Arjuna:

“The Lord Himself here extols the royal path of yoga as the highest of all spiritual paths, and the scientific yogi as greater than a follower of any other path”7.

Shiva, Krishna, and the mahesvaras (great yogis or avatars) belittle other religious systems and practitioners as inferior. Meditation practitioners are led to believe they and their particular techniques are superior, and that all followers of other systems are inferior.

“Misa dominical” by Serge Saint is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Implanting superiority to get and keep followers

Meditation and yoga traditions and systems use their Super Men (avatars and masters), like Krishna, Shiva, and spiritual gurus, to impose their values and implant their superiority complex into their yoga followers.

The spiritual Superman (avatar or master) proclaims all other systems of liberation (soteriologies) are inferior, “worthless” in an effort to get and keep followers. All other people who do not practice the Guru Lord’s version of “royal” yoga (meditation techniques) are explicitly and implicitly deemed inferior, ignorant, or damned–doomed to wander in darkness of Maya.

Instilling fear in followers

Fear is instilled in followers of these systems. The system, with the spiritual authority at the head, needs to ensure its continuance by keeping followers, and fills them with ideas that instill fear should they consider leaving the system. Remember these are ideological systems: built and maintained on ideas. They are not dependent on physical proximity or even actual adherence to practice.

Feelings of guilt for questioning the system is one way to prevent you from leaving. Followers when trapped inside these systems of ideas justify their loyalty to the system, group, or teacher to protect themselves from questioning their doubts and repressed feelings.

Competing for followers

Yogis, avatars, and spiritual masters compete for followers. It’s not enough to follow any system of yoga or meditation. Theirs is superior. Their followers are told they are superior. It has to be this way for this system to survive, to keep its followers. If gurus or yoga systems are not perceived by their followers as superior to any others, why follow that particular ideology, system, or meditation practice?

The “others”–followers of other systems to liberation–are therefore condemned as inferior by the “superior” meditators, yogis, and so-called spiritual masters of a particular system. Or, at best the “others” and their inferior systems are pitied (with condescending “compassion”) as those other peoples are in “reality” lost, ignorant, and part of the mindless masses.

To err is human. We often believe our team or tribe is the best (superior) and everyone else’s is inferior to ours. That in itself is not the problem. Repression of superiority complexes and the lack of awareness of followers is the problem.

Overcoming superiority complexes of yoga and meditation systems

Superiority complexes, like we discussed above, are often implicit or explicit within the ideological or soteriological systems followed by meditation practitioners. Repressed within these systems followers often have hidden feelings of insecurity and feelings of failure. By transforming feelings of inadequacy or inferiority into superiority complexes, these systems pretend to be more spiritual, to be greater than others. The harm and dangers lurk in this repression of inferiority that pretends to be superior.

I am not saying all practitioners or all yoga or meditation systems have superiority complexes.

What I am saying is followers of these systems are at higher risk of repressing their feelings through claims of superiority, having all the answers, following an infallible authority or unchallengeable system. Hence the popularity of articles hyping the “scientific” benefits of certain meditation methods.

Feelings of being “chosen”, “special”, or greater that others can be an indicator there is superiority complex. If one person or system is superior, then the other must be inferior.  A system, like yoga or meditation, that claims to be superior, infallible, and unchangeable is a potentially harmful ideology.

Ideological superiority = This is a natural, human trait, but dangerous thinking. The yogis, avatars, or spiritual masters are not exempt (indeed in this article we’ve shown them to often be the perpetrators) of needing and competing for followers who seen them as superior to others, especially to other spiritual systems or techniques. Anyone claiming to be superior to others or to be a part of an infallible, unchallengeable system is at increased risk or harming themselves and others. Awareness of this fact is an important step towards doing less harm to oneself and others.


Image #1: “Alchemy” by Riding on a comet is licensed under CC BY 2.0

1 Soteriology. Wikipedia. Accessed May 31, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soteriology.

2 Complex in this article, is used in the psychological or psychoanalytical context. Google definition. Accessed May 30, 2017 https://www.google.com/search?q=complex+definition&oq=complex+defin&aqs=chrome.0.0j69i57j0l4.4331j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

3 Superiority and it’s synonyms. Merriam-Webster. Accessed Jun 2, 2017 at https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/superiority

4 “Raseśvaras, like many other schools of Indian philosophy, believed that liberation was identity of self with Supreme lord Shiva and freedom from transmigration. However, unlike other schools, Raseśvaras thought that liberation could only be achieved by using mercury to acquire an imperishable body.” Wikipedia. Accessed May 24, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raseśvara].

5 The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, David Gordon White, University of Chicago Press. 1996. Print.  p174. https://www.amazon.com/Alchemical-Body-Siddha-Traditions-Medieval/dp/0226894991

6 Bhagavad Gita, VI:45-46, Sir Edwin Arnold’s translation http://hinduism.about.com/library/weekly/extra/bl-gitatext6.htm

7 God Talks with Arjuna, Ch 6 v45-46, Paramahansa Yogananda. Self-Realization Fellowship. Print. https://www.amazon.com/God-Talks-Arjuna-Self-Realization-Fellowship/dp/0876120311

meditation paranormal supernatural

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.

I used to wear contact lenses to correct my nearsightedness. Occasionally I would get  pink-eye, a common eye infection. Then I would remove my contact lense from my infected eye, keeping one lense in my healthy eye. With my vision lopsided, my ability to judge distance between my body and objects in space—my proprioception—was altered. With good vision in one eye only my proprioception was altered. It was not uncommon for me to bump my head in low doorways or to smash my toes into furniture. Maybe observers thought I was a klutz or drunk from bliss from meditation?

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.


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.

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.

Obsessive-compulsive symptoms & role of meditation beliefs and practices

David Masters, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
David Masters, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Studies show a link between obsessive-compulsive behaviors and high religiosity, thought-control, and magical thinking.

Many meditation beliefs and practices contain high religiosity, thought-control, and magical thinking.

Eastern- or yoga-meditation practices hold a variety of beliefs in subtle energies, chakras, spirits, gods, and mystical realms.

Meditators who heighten or intensify these beliefs and practices may increase their likelihood of obsessive-compulsive (OC) behaviors.

Clinical psychologists, E. Eremsoy and M. Inozu, at the University of Ankara, Turkey, studied1 165 adult participants who had no history of psychiatric conditions.

  • Participants completed four standard psychological questionnaires: Magical Ideation Scale, Thought Control Questionnaire, Obsessive Compulsive Inventory, and Demographic Information Form.
  • The results showed a significant link between magical thinking, religiosity, and thought control in determining obsessive-compulsive symptoms.
  • The researchers concluded that further studies are needed to identify whether heightened magical thinking, religiosity and thought control are direct causes in the development of OC symptoms.

Obsessive-compulsive defined

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a brain and behavior problem that is characterized by recurring and disabling obsessions (thoughts, images) and compulsions (uncontrollable actions) that won’t go away. The unwanted intrusion of these thoughts and activities may appear suddenly, interrupt the stream of consciousness, and evoke anxiety and distress.2

I do not claim that everyone who meditates has pathological OCD. Neither do I claim that all meditators have obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Yet some may. What I am suggesting is that many Eastern-inspired meditation beliefs and practices encourage a heightened religiosity, thought-control, and magical thinking, which recent psychological studies have linked to OC symptoms.

My history of meditation beliefs and practices revealed to me that spiritual teachers implanted a high degree of magical thinking, religiosity, and thought-controls–all foundational concepts in classical and contemporary yoga-meditation. Studies show these kinds of beliefs and practices play a key role in OC symptoms.

OC symptoms: Role of meditation beliefs and practices

To point you to what I see as strong relationships between OC symptoms and meditation beliefs and practices, I’ve quoted the Eremsoy study and provided my comments below:

Magical thinking is one of a number of OCD-related faulty beliefs. It refers to broader cognitive distortions about causality: real-life events are seen as being caused by a person’s thoughts and actions that are physically unconnected to the events.3

New age religions and occult often hold magical beliefs in the “law of attraction”, karma, and “thoughts are things” that bring the thinker either good or evil, prosperity or poverty, enlightenment or delusion. Read my post Gurus on the Financial Plane.

Several empirical studies have found that magical thinking was related to general psychopathology measures, anxiety, dissociative experiences, neuroticism, and schizotypal personality.4

In severe cases, meditation beliefs and practices have reportedly led some to extreme dissociative experiences (depersonalization/derealization)–that is, feelings of being outside one’s body, detachment from self or others, or as if looking from behind a glass. It is easy to see that some people who may be prone to OC behaviors could be attracted to meditation practices, or, that intense meditation beliefs and practices could cause psychopathology.
Read my post on Depersonalization/Derealization.

Magical thinking seems to have two functions: a) it increases sense of threat as an input; and b) it motivates a person to regain the control by showing neutralizing behaviour as an output.5

We may imagine certain thoughts or actions are “out of tune” with divine harmony, bring bad karma, or lead to sin or hell and so on. We then get anxious and fearful, which motivates us to meditate more and to try to neutralize and control our thoughts. We inevitably fail. A vicious cycle keeps us bound to spiritual teachers and religious practices who further instill worry and fear of punishment for our physical, moral, and spiritual failures. Read my post on Duped by Meditation.

Strict religious beliefs and moral codes may motivate highly religious individuals to attach strong personal meaning to the content and occurrence of intrusive thoughts. Some highly religious people may easily conclude that some thoughts can represent a type of moral failure and that may shake their complete faith in God; therefore immoral thoughts should be removed from the stream of consciousness in order to regain a feeling of purity and right standing with God.6

These beliefs about the importance of thoughts might activate deliberative thought-control efforts…. Recent studies have reported that highly religious individuals endorsed significantly more maladaptive beliefs about the importance and control of intrusive thoughts than did low religious individuals. These individuals also may show a higher tendency to believe in the power of their own thoughts.7

People use diverse strategies to control their unwanted thoughts, including distraction, thought replacement, thought stopping, analyzing thought, and suppression. Unfortunately, directing awareness away from unwanted thoughts is not always easy, and failure is inevitable….Individuals with OCD may have a belief that perfect control is possible and inability to achieve it is a sign of increased threat and failed mental control.8

Meditation teachers often falsely lead us to believe it is possible to achieve perfect control, perfect stillness of mind or permanent cessation of suffering–if we surrender our wills and energy to following their teachings. It is these teachers who instilled in us the worry and fear of punishment if we don’t properly follow and believe in their magical claims.

Although every act of magical thinking does not need to rely on supernatural agents (e.g., a spirit, ancestor, god, angel, saint) as seen in the case of prayer, some kinds of magical thinking are dependent on supernatural agents. The basic notion of intercessory prayer is that a specific supernatural agent might cause or prevent an event on the supplicant’s behalf.9

I recall a chant from Self-Realization Fellowship meditations, “Guru, image of Brahma, deliver us from delusion.” Chants, affirmations, prayers, or visualizations–these are often used to supplicate the gods, angels, or miraculous agents to intercede on our behalf. Magical thinking.

Strong devotion to religion may increase the tendency to engage in magical ideation, which in turn increases the need to remove these [unwanted] thoughts from the stream of consciousness through control strategies. However, these intentional thought-control efforts usually increase the frequency and intensity of intrusions.10

If a person with magical thoughts uses certain thought-control strategies, such as worry or punishment, in order to control his or her thoughts, he or she may suffer from OC symptoms, mainly because the effort in controlling the thoughts would further increase the thought itself, which creates a vicious cycle.11

Religious individuals seem to use worry and punishment as thought-control strategies, which then result in increased OC symptoms…. Magical beliefs often manifest themselves as superstitious behaviors, religious sacraments, and personal rituals.12

In summary, recent studies show a significant link between high religiosity, magical thinking, beliefs and needs for control of unwanted thoughts, and obsessive-compulsive (OC) behaviors. Many meditation beliefs and practices are rooted in various degrees of religiosity, thought-control, and magical thinking. When these factors are heightened in meditators it may increase OC-type symptoms.

1 C. Ekin Eremsoy and Mujgan Inozu, The Role of Magical Thinking, Religiosity and Thought-Strategies in Obsessive-Compulsive Symptoms in a Turkish Adults Sample, Behaviour Change, Vol 33:1 Apr 2016 pp. 1-14, Cambridge University Press. Read the abstract at http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=10215218&fileId=S0813483915000169

2 A more detailed definition of OCD can be read at the International OCD Foundation website https://iocdf.org/about-ocd/

3 C. Ekin Eremsoy and Mujgan Inozu, The Role of Magical Thinking, Religiosity and Thought-Strategies in Obsessive-Compulsive Symptoms in a Turkish Adults Sample, Behaviour Change, Vol 33:1 Apr 2016 p. 2

4 ibid

5 ibid

6 ibid

7 p. 2-3

8 p. 3

9 ibid

10 ibid

11 p. 10

12 ibid

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.


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