Extreme groups like Amish, Skinheads, and Self-Realization Fellowship Order promise followers “paradise”. Promises of “paradise” come in various forms: a heavenly afterlife by following tradition, spiritual enlightenment by meditation practice, or superiority over others by violence.
Below we compare the underlying psychology within three extreme, cult-like groups:
Skinhead promise of paradise
Christian Picciolini was born and raised on the southside of Chicago in a working-class neighborhood called Blue Island, the birthplace of the American white power skinhead movement.
One day at 14 years old I was standing in an alley and a man came up to me an essentially promised me paradise. He promised me that I wouldn’t feel powerless anymore.
That man was Clark Martell who in 1987 co-founded the Chicago Area SkinHeads, also called Romantic Violence, the first organized neo-Nazi white power skinhead group in the United States.
Martell promised me that I had something to be proud of. And that if I were to join him and his movement I would leave a mark on the world and find my purpose.
Did Skinheads deliver on their promise?
At first it felt like a family. There was a lot of acceptance. Here you have a bunch of broken people who enjoy each other’s company because we were all broken in some way. But quickly it turned into a dysfunctional family. It was after a while each person for themselves movement. There was no loyalty, only people with an agenda they wanted filled. They used others as pawns.
Picciolini, after 8 years as a Skinhead, left the group. He co-founded a non-profit–Life After Hate–which helps people leave hate groups.
Amish in tradition and fear
A former Amish man testified on camera:
I was Amish. It was a simple life. We were a unified people that shared one thing: Tradition. Within the Amish Order we all had our part: The older, the younger. From the outside we looked good. We looked satisfied. But on the inside we were confused, unsure, scared.
I lived in a society that was based on fear: The fear of hell. Each day I had questions and uncertainty about my life’s purpose. The elders told me not to question but to obey the teachings of the past. I tried to live at home but my reality was defeat. I had to hide my feelings for the sake of acceptance.
“Loyal” gods in Self-Realization Fellowship Order
In Self-Realization Fellowship the guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, promised to show us we were gods. In a secret ceremony disciples vowed their complete loyalty to the guru and his organization, SRF. Then the guru initiated disciples into Kriya yoga meditation techniques. Meditation and being loyal to the guru would show us we were gods. In its Service Reading #39, 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.”
Did SRF and Yogananda deliver on their promises?
At first, there was a sense of certainty, purpose, and acceptance. The guru and SRF made promises and had the answers. They made us dependent on them.
The monks were broken people. We all had been disappointed and disillusioned with the world. Promises made us willing to give up everything, to follow and obey forever the guru and SRF.
But after the honeymoon wore off it was a different story. There was no loyalty, only loyal followers and those who were labeled disloyal. Each person was loyal for their own self-preservation. Everyone’s true thoughts and feelings had to be hidden for fear of not being accepted. Any person could at anytime be branded as disloyal, shunned, or ostracized within the community.
I lived in fear. People had to accept their “training” without question. Abuses were easily excused and justified. Towards the end of my decade and a half within the Order, a few monks and I discussed our fears of fanatically “loyal” monks who might assassinate other monks who they considered disloyal. That kind of “loyalty” and fear was the last straw. All four of us monks in that conversation left the Order within the next several months.
There was no loyalty except to persons who said or did what SRF and its leadership wanted. Their promises were empty.
Loyalty in cult-family
At first members of Amish, Skinheads, or SRF Order feel like they are part of a family. Members of the in-group feel accepted into the community. People outside the group don’t understand them, even ridicule them. A persecution or messianic complex drives followers of these groups to bond even closer together. However, the loyalty is to the leaders, tradition, or ideology–not to the individuals themselves as human beings. Any deviation from the tradition, guru, or institution is seen as disloyalty. Fear takes over. Some eventually leave the group.
These examples illustrate some common themes of groups like the Amish, Skinhead, and SRF Order:
Leader or tradition that promises certainty, purpose in life.
Feeling, at first, of acceptance and family.
Dysfunctional group held together by fear.
Hiding of one’s feelings and living in fear of being found out.
Eventually, fortunate persons, leave and are able to help others leave.
Every Sunday, in the SRF (Self-Realization Fellowship) Order, the monastics had a strict rule of observing silence. On this weekly day of silence, we refrained from speech. This was from the time of waking to the time of retiring to bed in the evening. The idea was in silence monastics would devote the entire Sunday to contemplation, meditation, and practicing the presence of god (basically praying).
Sunday silence was intended to dedicate the entire day to god, to the redoubling of efforts to the practice of the presence of god, to forego any activities interfering with a direct and personal experience of god. In addition to Sunday silence, monastics on every weekday observed periods of silence before 8 AM and after 9 PM and during all mealtimes. This post focuses mostly on the all day of silence on Sundays.
Each Sunday, the monks retreated further from the world into the inner sanctum of non-verbal silence, all-day fasting, and six-hour long meditations.
Loved and hated about ashram silence on Sundays
What I sometimes Loved about Sundays in the Ashram
Free time: If I had no work or duties, I had more free time to relax and read independently.
Focus: The silence encouraged deeper concentration in the 6 hour-long meditations.
Quiet: Peace and quiet was a welcome change after a hectic week of ashram duties.
What I often Hated about Sundays in the Ashram
Fasting: No food, other than fruit, was made available on Sundays. I often was hungry.
Guilt: If I wasn’t spending at least 6 hours in one sitting in meditation, I often felt guilty.
Sermons: Every few weeks, I was called for public representation of the SRF temples.
Ashram silence: Map of obedience
Silence can bring peace and healing. It can also control and manipulate.
“A good monk is seen and not heard”. I was taught this along with all SRF monks. Keeping quiet, above all, meant obedience to rules and vows of the Order. Silence was a map of obedience.
Silence can be valuable. But valuing silence as superior to one’s thoughts minimizes the value of one’s thoughts. Silence, we are told, is a path to enlightenment. Silencing our thoughts becomes a way of following and thinking someone else’s thoughts.
Fear of living without a map is the main reason people are so insistent that we tell them what to do… Not only does the map isolate us from responsibility, but it’s also a social talisman. We can tell our friends and family that we’ve found a good map, a safe map, a map worthy of respect.
— Seth Godin, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?
Ashram silence was “a good map, a safe map, a map worthy of respect”. Silence itself was not the problem. There’s much to love and hate about silence. The silence, though, born of fear of living without a map–an authority to take responsibility for us–is the problem. The ashram silence was worthy of respect. It is an example of living in fear, in keeping quiet, and following orders.
Techniques for quieting the mind can be valuable. But valuing silence or stilling thought as superior devalues thought, thinking, and acting. Here are some other ways to find similar benefits to meditation techniques.
Commenter: I’m interested in hearing of other ways to find similar benefits to yoga and meditation techniques. What other ways can you think of?
SkepticMeditations: Techniques for quieting thought can be valuable: being quiet with yourself, being out in nature, hearing music or bird song, sitting or lying comfortably can help us relax and be more centered, to counter the busyness and distractions of a modern life.
But valuing silence and stilling thought as superior or more valuable than thinking or acting is the problem. It devalues thought, thinking, and acting in the world.
“Who” says certain techniques for stilling or quieting thought are superior? “Who” says withdrawing from the world is superior?
Eastern spiritual authorities promise superior techniques, concepts, and worldviews. The irony is that the thought withdrawing into thoughtlessness (stilling or silencing thought) is a thought, or web of thoughts, embedded in a certain ideology or worldview that claims to be superior.
Techniques for quieting and relaxing can be valuable. Select whatever works best for you. Unicuique suum (Latin: to each their own). Approval from others does not validate your ideas or your technique. Some ways, especially those purportedly superior, could be harmful. What are some other ways to find similar benefits of meditation techniques?
Other ways to find similar benefits of meditation techniques
There are many ways to still thought, to relax, to counter the busyness of modern life. Be quiet with yourself, be out in nature, listen to music or bird song, sit or lay comfortably to relax and be centered. Or, engross yourself in some activity so much that you forget yourself, your thoughts and your distractions. Who says meditation techniques are superior?
Meditation techniques can be helpful. They also can be harmful, especially when embedded in a worldview that values stilling thought (meditation techniques) as superior. This devalues thought, thinking, acting. There are countless other ways to quiet thought, to relax, and to be engrossed in meaningful activities. What benefits you will not be withdrawing from thought, thinking, or acting that is embedded in second-hand testimony from Buddha or any other Eastern or Western spiritual authority.
If you have any thoughts on other ways to “still thought” while valuing thought, please write in the Comments link or in the box “Leave a Reply” at the bottom of this post.
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.
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 Rasārṇava4condemns 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.
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
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].
What’s the difference between a guru and an educator?
A guru fashions a doctrine and disciples. A guru dictates the questions and answers which are permitted. Disciples are discouraged from independent thought. Their job is to distribute the doctrine and to allure more disciples. Gurus demand obedience and compliance.
Educators, on the contrary, foster learning and encourage questioning and searching for answers. Students are allowed to engage in independent thought. Unexpected answers or questions are welcomed by educators as part of the process of learning and discovery. Educators stimulate creativity, skepticism, and intellectual explorations.1
Gurus seldom, if ever, doubt their doctrines and tend to see themselves as infallible. Educators, on the other hand, are doubtful about many of their beliefs. Educators lack absolute certainty. Gurus are absolutely certain of their doctrine.
It’s important to define words that often have multiple meanings. A popular definition is that a guru fits the East-Asian notion of an enlightened spiritual teacher. Most important, is not the personality or person, but the actions and attitudes that differentiate an educator from a guru.
Below are two examples using different Eastern, Hindu-inspired gurus.
When a visitor named Shyam Basu asked [guru] Ramakrishna: “How can you say that sin is punishable when you say that He is doing everything?”. The [guru] was cheesed off and quipped: “What calculating cunning (sonar bener buddhi)! You asshole (Ore podo), just eat the mango. What will you gain by counting the trees, branches, and leaves in the grove?”2 [Read more quotes and a brief biography in my post Ramakrishna Paramahamsa: Smoking, Cussing Godman?]
To a dissatisfied student, [the guru] Paramahansa Yogananda said: “Don’t doubt, or God will remove you from the hermitage. So many come here looking for miracles. But masters do not display the powers God has given them unless He commands them to do so. Most men don’t understand that the greatest miracle of all would be the transformation of their lives by humble obedience to His will.”3
The behaviors and attitudes expressed by these two East-Asian, Hindu-inspired god-men is emblematic of gurus. It doesn’t matter whether a person is popularly called a guru or disciple. What matters most is how a person acts and how disciples surrender and obey.
Many more gurus than educators
A guru aims to produce disciples who obey and comply. Disciples are discouraged from independent thought. Independence is discouraged as being egoic, rebellious, and “doing your own thing”—opposing the guru and doctrine. Educators encourage students to question and search for answers. When it no longer serves, doctrine may be discarded. An educator aims to stimulate creativity, skepticism, and intellectual explorations.
In many schools teachers are more like gurus than educators. In politics many citizens act more like disciples. Making distinctions—between guru versus educator—is important. It illustrates and impacts the way we think and act in daily life, in private and public.
Notes Top photo credit, walking buddha and disciples, by AntanO – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39371295.
1 Many of the distinctions of guru versus educator made in this post were gleaned from Russell L. Ackoff’s, Differences That Make a Difference, London: UK, Triarchy Press, 2010.
2 Quote of Ramakrishna Paramahansa from Narasingha P. Sil’s, Ramakrishna Revisited: A New Biography, Lanham: MD, University Press of America, 1998, p. 163.
3 Quote of Paramahansa Yogananda from Sayings of Paramahansa Yogananda, Los Angeles: CA, Self-Realization Fellowship, 1980.