Tagged: cults

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

The Ashram: Spiritual-Corporate Caste System

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

Spiritual Corporate Ladder

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.

Notes

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

Psychological Enslavement to Meditation Leaders

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

What are yoga meditation cults? How do they work?

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

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

Definitions of Cults

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Methods Used by Cultic Meditation Groups

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

Process of Submission and Psychological Enslavement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

Manipulation Techniques of Meditation Peddlers

Thesis: Meditation peddlers often use manipulation techniques to gain follower disciples

Meditation itself is not manipulative, but many guru-teachers are. For example, it is not the act of watching the breath that many Hindu-Buddhist-styled meditators do that is manipulative. It’s what the Guru-Teacher of meditation may promise and claim that is often manipulative.

Trusting saviors or holders of special wisdom as a way to enlightenment, to save humanity or oneself is actually a form of self-doubt that gets peddled as a path to self-realization or salvation.

Here are three key points about the manipulation of meditation peddlers:

1) Vague, unchallengeable, non-falsifiable meditation claims

By making vague and unchallengeable claims, gurus and yoga meditation peddlers avoid both scrutiny and the possibility of falsification.

2) Claims of special revelations: again, unchallangeable

Claims of special access to “truth”, to revelations or special dispensations from supernatural sources that are supposedly beyond material dimensions are inscrutable.

3) Instilling self-doubt and guilt in followers

Instilling self-mistrust is the easiest way of controlling people. Meditation gurus or religious authoritarians indoctrinate their disciple followers in self-doubt. “Once people do not trust themselves, they are subject to easy manipulation” say Kramer and Alstad in The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power2.

Concluding thoughts and concerns:

It seems to me to be a mistake, a misconstruction, to take meditation peddlers, religious authorities and texts at face value3.

There may or may not be nirvana (attainment of release from suffering existence and from the cycle of rebirths (samsara)). There may or may not be samadhi (attainment of meditative concentration as total absorption in absolute truth). There may be chakras, kundalini, or yogic subtle energies. I don’t know. I doubt anyone will ever know.

So why do so many people take meditation peddlers, religious authorities and texts at face value?

Notes

1 White, David Gordon, Yoga, Brief History of an Idea, Princeton University Press
2 Kramer, J. and Alstad, D., The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Frog Books, 1993
3 Lincoln, Bruce. Interview. Religious Studies Project podcast. 2015

Mind Controlling Yoga Groups

wikipedia images, CC BY-SA 3.0
wikipedia images, CC BY-SA 3.0

What happens when members experience psychological damage? How do group leaders react to changes coming from members of the group?

During the late 1990’s, the president of SRF, Daya Mata, created a middle-management “Spiritual Life Committee” composed of a dozen senior monks and nuns. The committee recommended that SRF hire outside communication and organizational consultants, along with psychologists to cope with the severe psychological problems that some of the monks and nuns were experiencing[1].

The committee’s recommendations spawned a series of meetings where monks and nuns began to openly discuss problems they were experiencing. (I participated in many of these meetings and can testify that these discussions were crucial to solving the many psychological dysfunctions of the ashram at the SRF Mother Center).

Some monastics welcomed the promise of ashram change with relief and exhilaration. While others reacted to possible changes with fear and anxiety.

Exodus, Giorgio Raffaelli, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
Exodus, Giorgio Raffaelli, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Exodus of 1/3 Monastics

The monks and nuns living at the Mother Center split into two factions: the conservatives who sided with Daya Mata and were for maintaining the status quo, and the other faction, the liberals or progressives who embraced and advocated for changes. From the start I sided with the progressives and instantly embraced with enthusiasm the possibility of ashram changes.

After several years of fruitless efforts for meaningful and lasting change in the ashram approximately one-third of the monastic order left SRF during 2000 to 2001. I joined the exodus at this time.

Entrenched and resisting change, Daya Mata and the others with power at SRF, fired the communication consultants who they blamed for creating the 2000-2001 exodus of a third of the monastics. The existing members of the Spiritual Life Committee were replaced by others content with the status quo. The psychologists were let go. The conservatives retained their power of SRF and only the monastics who were either too afraid to leave or too invested in status quo remained in SRF.

Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Therapy Helped

The year or two before my departure from SRF, I had been visiting one of the psychologists noted above. I too had psychological problems, anxieties and fears about staying and/or leaving the ashram. I was damned if I did and damned if I don’t stay. Eventually, I left after a long and painful process of unshackling my mind from the authoritarian control of SRF.

Authoritarian mind control methods are not unique to Yogananda or SRF.

Yogananda and SRF used classic mind control techniques

The primary mind control technique referenced in this post is: Fill the members with fears of leaving the group to keep them inside the group.

In Service Reading #39, Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) teaches: “To such a God-sent Guru [e.g., Yogananda] the disciple must always be loyal throughout his lifetime and through future incarnations until he finds redemption.”

In SRF magazine, Spring 1974, Yogananda said: “There is only one guru uniquely the devotee’s own. But if you turn away from the emissary of God, He silently asks: ‘What is wrong with you…?’ … He who cannot learn through the wisdom and love of his God-ordained guru will not find God in this life. Several incarnations at least must pass before he will have another such opportunity.”

It was tribal knowledge among the monks that he who left the SRF ashram, supposedly would suffer for seven lifetimes before the guru could accept him back as a disciple.

And this is the supposed unconditional love of the guru, of following the infallible teachings and “divine” incarnations on earth?

Question for readers: Do you have any personal experiences of being inside an extremely controlling group or relationship? What statements did they use to fill your mind with fear or obedience?

Notes

1 Paraphrased from Freedom of Mind website on SRF quoting Lola Williamson, Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion, book.