Sunday, November 22, 2009

Authority, Direct Experience and the Hypnotic Power of Cults

Continuing with the samyama on “un-cults”, I realize how much there is to say about the subject, much of it obvious, unless you happen to be in a cult and can't see what's going on, in which case there's not much to say about it that will penetrate past one's defenses. This is of course the purpose of cultic thinking to begin with – erecting a solid defense against one's vulnerabilities. The result, unfortunately is an inability to recognize one's defenses as liabilities, rather than benefits.

The biggest problem with cults is that the people in them for the most part want to be in a cult, and they stay in the cult because it gives them something they need. We can argue till we're blue in the face that they don't really need the cult, but like all needs beyond the elemental basics of life, such things are always in the eye of the beholder. In that sense, most people who are in a cult have to learn some basic lessons about themselves, just as someone who has a physical addiction does. They aren't going to even recognize they have a problem unless they start to notice some intangible symptoms of things not going right, and even then, they will tend to blame themselves first. In some sense this makes sense, in that the impetus to be in a cult begins with the cultist, and not with the cult leader, despite what many anti-cult propagandists would have us believe. However, the way in which they blame themselves masks the real nature of the problem, and guilt becomes a vehicle for strengthening the defense of the cult rather than realizing that it's merely a symptom of a deeper lack in us.

The problem with cults is not leaders, but followers. Cultic followers can turn even relatively benign leaders into narcissistic despots over time, because of the burden they place on the leader. Not that this excuses the leader any more than the follower. The leader and the followers become co-conspirators in an escalating game of hypnotic chicken, daring each other to bring their cultism to new heights of grandeur and foolishness. I saw this occur first hand in Adidam, and it's hard to say who was more to blame, Adi Da or his devotees. The more one plays this game, the greater the need becomes, as in any addiction. The opportunity to play the game is itself something the cultist feels immensely grateful for, since ordinary life and relationships seldom allow one to play out these fantasies as fully as the cult does. And the sense of gratitude is real, because the person feels they never could have achieved these states of relaxation on their own. Of course, these states of relaxation are precisely the result of being in a cult, because they are the result of transferring the responsibility and the hard work of making decisions for ourselves and forming our own world views on our own. And yet because of their dependency on something or someone outside of us in the context of what is essentially a trance state, no true satisfaction is achieved, only a deepening cycle of dependency.

We have to recognize just how deep our fantasy life runs. Religion is of course rife with fantasy, and it gets criticized by the secular or non-religious with great scorn at times for its rather obvious dependence of credulous believers. But the fantasies of cultism are not limited at all to religion, they appear in all kinds of guises, from the ordinary ones of sex and power to the more exotic ones of art, music, entertainments of all kinds, and sports. Even seemingly rational pursuits such as science, finance, and academia become playgrounds for our narcissistic fantasies, with leaders and followers enacting similar rituals as are found in religion. Some recent neurological studies have shown that when expert advice is given, people almost automatically turn off the decision-making parts of their brain. They follow authority, in other words, and take the word of experts without seriously questioning the reliability of the authority, even when the actual advice given is truly terrible advice. This fulfills a basic need which leads us to transfer our decision-making power to authoritative figures who fulfill certain cognitive criteria, and we appear to receive almost immediate benefits from them simply by “recognizing” them as trustworthy authorities.

I suspect people do this because it actually feels good to them. Having your decision-making brain on at all times is tiring and debilitating. It creates tension and disturbance. It's so much easier and relaxing to let someone else make your decisions for you. It allows us to enter into a soothing trance-like state in which we are no longer entirely responsible for ourselves. The problem here, I think, is not so much that this relaxation is undesirable or even bad, but that we often cannot find a way to relax without entering into a trance of some kind and transferring our decision-making power to others. By following a leader, or a system of thought developed by some authoritative figure, we vicariously experience the satisfaction of relaxing our minds, in the same way that would occur if we had made the decision ourselves. And in fact we have made a decision – the decision to follow the leader, the system, the beliefs and structure of authority, and this mimics some of the internal benefits that would have come to us from actually being responsible ourselves and making decisions on our own. Which leads us to think that we never really needed to make these kinds of decisions ourselves, but are better off transferring that troublesome task to the authoritative sources we have presumed are more capable than us.

The crux of the problem it seems to me is that we often don't know how to make intelligent decisions, and let them stand. Rather than come to intelligent decisions for ourselves that we can simply accept and relax into, we tend to function in a perpetual state of doubt and indecision, never quite sure if we are right or wrong or somewhere in between. Because this is often the case, we are seldom able to simply relax. We tend to be tortured by internal self-doubts about the decisions we have made, about the various views we have come to over time. This is why we like to turn to authorities to make our decisions for us. It's not so much that they actually give us better results – studies of financial investment authorities, for example, show that they tend to actually do worse than sheer chance – it's that by handing over our decision-making power to an authority, we are able to achieve a much greater degree of relaxation than we can if we make the decision ourselves, because it puts an end to the constant doubt and confusion we experience internally when we try to make these decisions ourselves.

This is why cult-leaders tend to be decisive individuals. They radiate self-confidence and the magical ability to decide things that we have been tortured by for a very long time. Often their decisions merely mimic some internal anxiety we have, and provide confirmation that something we were inclined towards anyway has the stamp of authority behind it. This is why it is so similar to hypnotism – the hypnotist doesn't really “brainwash” anyone into thinking or doing something they didn't already fantasize about, it merely gives them permission to enact that fantasy as if it were true. The authority they are drawn to tends to mimic these internal fantasies, and even when the decisions these decisive character make for us are bad ones, we feel better, and don't even notice, because we've turned off the part of our brain which could properly evaluate such things. Their ideas might be total garbage, but it still “works” for us, because it allows us to relax and enjoy the immediate psychological benefits that result from such relaxation.

We feel good about the decisions we've adopted from the authoritative source, or the beliefs we've accepted, no matter how absurd they might be, as long as we have relaxed as a result of accepting them. Bernie Madoff conned people into giving him over fifty billion dollars because his investors felt so relieved that their money was in the hands of a trustworthy investor. They slept well at night, and this led them to plow even more money his way - not just gullible laymen, but highly trained professional hedge fund managers. The more his reputation grew, the more comfortable people felt with their money in his hands, because it meant they didn't have to make any serious decisions in their life about money. They let someone else make those decisions for them. That was of real benefit to them, psychologically speaking, or so it might seem, even if in the long run it actually damaged them, not just in the actual decisions made, but psychologically, in terms of stunting their real ability to form their own views and make their own decisions. Instead, a dependency develops that spirals downwards as our ability to make decisions is diminished the more we hand over that task to authorities.

So if we are to discuss what needs to occur for an “un-cult” movement to gain traction, we are really talking about people developing the capacity not only to make autonomous decisions for themselves, but to feel comfortable doing so, and not torture themselves with indecision, regrets, or constant worry. This applies to both the most basic and ordinary kinds of decisions about one's life, to the most esoteric and abstract. The development of a world-view, for example, is something that people have a lot of worry and concern about, and so they tend to turn to authorities for help. This often comes in the form of scriptures, gurus, traditions, and religious leaders of all kinds. The most common reason people turn to these kinds of sources is that they cannot make a decision on their own, and they hope someone else can help them. In some respects this is perfectly natural, but all to often it leads to the acceptance of authority in the place of our own decision-making process, because that offers immediate benefits, whereas the long struggle of developing our own views and making our own decisions seems stressful and difficult.

This is why the hypnotic trance state is so popular and powerful, and why we hardly notice when we are in it. At the most basic level, it merely means turning off a certain part of our brain, such that we accept decisions made for us by others, rather than making decisions for ourselves. In most cases, we would not see ourselves or someone else enter into a “trance”. Instead, we would see them relax and even become quite happy and even “blissful”. People tend to be so self-tortured by doubt and indecision that it's immensely relaxing and enjoyable to at last not have to worry about such things. By putting one's worries in the hands of someone else, we can enjoy a deeper sense of our own freedom – or at least it seems that way. But like every other vicarious pleasure, it doesn't last. The less time we spend making decisions for ourselves, the less skill we have at the process, and this leads us to turn more and more of our decision-making process over to an authority.

It doesn't matter how “integral” or advanced we may think we've become, unless we learn to make decisions for ourselves and develop our own views of the world, we will end up as dependent cultists. Thus, when you have someone like Ken Wilber reading all those books for you and telling you what they mean, it's a great relief. You don't have to actually think these things through yourself, and instead you can simply adopt the views and system that he's developed. This seems at first to be a great help to people, simply because it helps them relax, and that's what they are looking for – an opportunity to relax and not torture themselves so much anymore. They adopt abstract notions of what “integral” means and it feels good to finally know the answers to life's questions. They feel they have a magical tool for self-understanding, but really, all they've done is relax the questioning part of their brains and learned to think like Wilber, or whomever it might be. People easily confuse this with genuine maturation and growth, because the authorities in question encourage this, because they benefit from taking on the role of an authority, since it is part of their own internal fantasy life, and it relieves them of the insecurity they have about the views and decisions they have made. The more decisive the cult leader, the more it masks his own internal doubts and self-tortured rationale. Thus, the leader and follower are both imbibing the same drug in a mutual cycle of dependency and trust aimed at relieving each of them of their internal psychological problem.

And so it is with every version of authority, every system being sold. In this respect, they are all con jobs, whether they are relatively true of not. They benefit we get from them is not actually in their truth content, but in their relaxation effect. My years in Adidam demonstrated just how fulfilling it can be to have someone who knows all the answers being able to tell us what's what. It's no wonder people become immensely devoted to an authority who tells you that he is an infallible God. It brings an end to a level of life-concern and worry that is terribly bothersome to many people. That is what makes them come back for more, and become deeply devoted to this source of authority. This kind of devotion may not represent our real responsibility for life, but it does represent our real needs. It is only that they are relatively childish needs, and perpetuating them as adults actually inhibits our own growth and our inner ability to surrender ourselves directly into life, without the “help” of authorities.

So there's another aspect to the un-cult that can help obviate this problem, and it has to do with the development of the capacity to simply relax even when we don't know what's right or wrong or what to decide. Often we convince ourselves that ambiguity and uncertainty is somehow a sign that something is wrong with us, and it plunges us into a perpetual state of concern. The only solution to this state, we often mistakenly conclude, is to think that we need to resolve these concerns decisively, and make a deep and abiding decision about them. In reality, we often simply need to realize that it's not necessary to make decisions about things we don't have enough information to decide, and that it's okay not to know all the answers to everything/ “Theories of everything” are a not a cure for our problems, they are the manifestation of a false sense of need, as if we really do have to form a conceptual view that explains everything. Not only is it impossible to actually create such views, it isn't necessary. What is necessary is the ability to live in a relaxed and surrendered state of mind and body regardless of what views we have. We simply need to learn how to surrender to reality, rather than to authority. We don't actually need to have decisive views about the world, we only need to learn how to decisively surrender to the simple experience of our being alive.

As Papaji often said, it's best not to develop a highly detailed conceptual understanding of enlightenment or the spiritual process. It can actually be a burden on us to try to develop such a thing, and we will tend to collapse our concerns around some piece of received wisdom, and then construct all kinds of justifications and rationalizations around it, to the point where we will actually experience great benefits from these received ideas, and think this only proves their validity. In fact, we could have felt just as relaxed and enjoyable without any of those conceptions or ideas, if we simply learned how to relax and surrender directly, regardless of the concepts we associate with surrender. Those who labor the hardest to develop the most elaborate conceptual systems are often the least mature of all, because they cannot relax their strained conceptual thinking until they have constructed a vast conceptual fortress in their minds. Wilber again comes to mind, but so does every elaborate system of thought which we can use to substitute for genuine surrender to our own process of experience.

The real process of living is not one of forming elaborate world views, but of merely observing the world as it is directly experienced by us. This is part of the argument for “direct experience” that one finds in the neo-Advaitic approach to non-dualism, although it is seldom directly put this way. The practice of deferring to the authority of scriptures and Gurus does indeed help us relax our conceptual struggles, and lets us surrender the mind's tensions and difficulties in a very simple system that makes much internal sense. However, in the process we may fail to develop the ability to simply be attentive to our actual experience, and be surrendered into it with native, internal intelligence and wisdom. If we approach these sources in that fashion, we will never actually grow an autonomous ability to inspect our experience, to observe it directly, we will always do so through a filter of received concepts. It doesn't matter what that filter is a profoundly gifted one or a pious fraud, we will still be stunted in our growth and maturation. We simply may not notice that we have become stunted, because we will feel great benefits just from having turned over our own process to the receptive one of taking on the views of authority. This is of course how religious and spiritual traditions become cults that reinforce themselves over time, and how we develop severe dependency and attachment to them. Our devotion to the cult masks a deep psychological need which is the result of not knowing how to simply be attentive and observant of our own experience, and form our views naturally and organically as a result of that process of observation.

The basic asana of the un-cult, then is one of simply being observant of our own experience, and not interpreting it through the conceptual filter of received wisdom. This may sound simple and basic enough to hardly need to be said, but in practice it is much more difficult that it might seem, because it is so tempting, and so habitual, to function from the perspective of a received set of concepts and views that come from a trusted authority. In fact, it often seems that we need an authority of some kind just to tell us not to follow authority, but instead to follow our own experience through a simple process of direct observation. We don't even need to develop conceptual systems of thought around this simple process of observation. We can just learn to experience the internal relaxation of those needs by learning to enjoy the process of observation itself, and let it develop naturally and without overly elaborate conceptual guidance.

The best teachers, therefore, are the ones who leaves us alone, who guide us to simply observe experience directly, and to relax our immensely complicated internal conceptual need to impose a conceptual system on our experience, not only because we are usually going to get that system from an authoritative source, but because conceptual systems in themselves, even when developed by us directly, are not necessary, and can even impede our growth by interfering with the ability to be surrendered directly into experience itself, rather than into the conceptual mind. The conceptual mind is not the gateway to true experience or true surrender. It is a gateway all too often to our own internal fantasy life, which then becomes projected onto our experience in a way that seems all too real and attractive, but in reality is our biggest obstacle to reality.


Losing M. Mind said...

all well put. That last paragraph really says it all. A true guru, teacher will leave it up to the devotee to merge with their own experience.

...oneLove said...

Excellent post!

I have a close friend (she's a psychology professor at a local college) who is totally enraptured with Dr. (Master?) Zhi Gang Sha, who's organization I see as a cult almost to the degree of Scientology. I'm sure I would lose her as a friend if I approached her with the insights you've posted in your blog. Up to this point I have left it alone. I don't know which would be best?

BTW, when you use Times New Roman text in your posts, not all the lines appear readable on my PC. I highlight them and they are then made readable.

Losing M. Mind said...

Well, it seems regardless, you gotta let people go through their own learning experiences. I've decided that I don't at all interfere with other people's perspectives, even if I disagree with them. To me, it's not worth losing a friend over. If the group is really messed up and abusive, she'll come to, when she comes to.

On a different note:
Couldn't it be argued though that all religions are cults? What is the difference between a cult and a religion? What makes Ramanasramam while Maharshi alive not a cult? Is it that something unethical is taking place? Or authoritarianism?

...oneLove said...

Q: Couldn't it be argued though that all religions are cults? What is the difference between a cult and a religion? What makes Ramanasramam while Maharshi alive not a cult? Is it that something unethical is taking place? Or authoritarianism?

A: Three ideas seem essential to the establishment of a cult. One is thinking in terms of us versus them with alienation from "them." The second is the intense, though often subtle, indoctrination techniques used to recruit and hold members. The third is the charismatic cult leader. Cultism usually involves some sort of belief that outside the cult all is evil and threatening; inside the cult is the special path to salvation through the cult leader and his teachings.

Losing M. Mind said...

Cool, that's a pretty clear definition. Did Adidam fit that description. I'm taking from what everyone says it does. Now another question could a realized master be the charismatic leader of a cult that fits your description? As in, maybe because they are just sitting (or acting) absorbed in sahaja and not interfering with the madness of others in putting them in that position? Just curious. But of course, if they were a realized master they would consider ideas of "us" versus "them" dualistic ignorance, and would probably say so. Now, I could imagine a Realized master being a charismatic leader of a group that people were intensely devoted to, but without all the "us" versus "them", or alienation from the "them". Infact Self-Realization kind of implies that all are the Self, so otherizing another group would be alien to the natural state of permanent samadhi.

Anonymous said...

Sha is most definitely a cult leader. We are currently trying to get our parents out from under his influence before they lose everything. Please contact me at for more information on him to hopefully save your friend.