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Is TM a cult?

Part 1: A person's reality can be turned unreal

So is TM a cult? Well, first I have to explain what I mean by "cult." And the easiest way to explain that is to put the cart before the horse, by explaining "how cults recruit" without even answering the "what is a cult?" question yet.

(However, the discussion is long and if you want to "skip to the ending" then here it is. Then you may want to come back here so that you can understand my reasoning.)

Dissociation 101

I often use the word "trance" in this web site. And I also use the word "dissociation." For the purposes of this web site they are the same thing, because trance is just a form of dissociation.

As described in this article dissociation is...:

...the disconnection from full awareness of self, time, and/or external circumstances. It is a complex neuropsychological process.

Dissociation exists along a continuum from normal everyday experiences to disorders that interfere with everyday functioning.

Common examples of normal dissociation are highway hypnosis (a trance-like feeling that develops as the miles go by), "getting lost" in a book or a movie so that one loses a sense of passing time and surroundings, and daydreaming.

You almost certainly go into a mild dissociative state many times a day. This is completely normal. For example, when you get lost in a movie you are dissociated. This is because you are experiencing a "disconnection from full awareness of self, time, and/or external circumstances."

Every human being has a natural talent for dissociation, i.e. a natural talent for "going into a trance" And for many people, it's a very easy thing for them to do.

Reality testing, a vital survival trait

There is another phenomenon of normal human psychology called "reality testing." As an example, I will now recruit you into my own personal cult by telling you this:

Now that you have read this far it is time to reveal to you that I, Joseph Kellett, am actually The Messiah! I have come to lead the world into its ultimate state of spiritual enlightenment, peace and prosperity. You must accept my teachings and follow me unquestioningly!

Ok... A part of your mind just spontaneously triggered and screamed "Bullshit!" That is your reality tester at work. I think of it as the "bullshit detector." And because you have a healthy bullshit detector you escaped from my cult rather quickly! I didn't have a chance at recruiting you. And my claims are no crazier than those of Hubbard, or Mahesh, or Moon! (Actually, except for the use of the word "Messiah" my claim is almost perfectly identical to Mahesh's.)

Because your bullshit detector triggered you just escaped from my cult! That was pretty easy, yes? So why didn't Lynch and I get away from Mahesh's cult? Or Cruise from Hubbard's? Where were our bullshit detectors when we needed them?

Boiling the frog

Well, the first part of the answer is that a good cult leader won't give you the whole pitch up front as I did with you. A good cult leader will be deceptive and lure you in with some sort of pitch that is less hard to swallow. "We teach a simple and natural relaxation technique" would be good, for example. He won't ask you to swallow the whole belief system at once. You'll get it in spoonfuls.

I describe this elsewhere as knowing how to boil a frog.

But there's an additional reason...

Reality testing can be suppressed

The second part of the answer is that there are a multitude of methods that can be applied to a person in order to reduce or even suspend that person's level of reality testing! All of these methods have something in common, they all produce a dissociative state in the person. And in a significant percentage of people a dissociative state causes a significant reduction or suspension of reality testing.

Almost everyone is aware of a common example of this: stage hypnosis. I saw a show once where a stage hypnotist stopped at a construction site and got several construction workers to be subjects. The hypnotist pretty quickly had one of the workers, a big man with quite a large belly, thinking that he was a ballerina. The man was doing leaps and pirouettes and graceful poses. It was hilarious. You can probably think of other similar acts that you've seen on television.

Why did that very manly construction worker do all of this in front of all of his friends and co-workers? Because a "hypnotic trance" is just a form of dissociation, and the man suspended reality testing while in this dissociative state. And when the hypnotist told him "you are a ballerina" the worker's bullshit detector did not go off, and he found the hypnotist's suggestion to be quite reasonable, and he begin to act like the ballerina that he quite "reasonably" felt that he was.

He at no point saw anything craze or irrational about this! His intellect would have screamed "Bullshit!" if given the chance, but his intellect had been completely bypassed! His reality tester had never been given the opportunity to analyze the "you are a ballerina" statement for reasonableness, so it was accepted as reasonable.

Surreptitious induction methods: The mark doesn't have to know what is really happening

Our construction worker above knew exactly what he was volunteering for. He was volunteering to be hypnotized for the purposes of entertainment. However, it is completely unnecessary for the subject to have knowingly volunteered for trance induction, or to even be aware (either before or after) that it had occurred.

Surreptitiously inducing dissociation via repetitiveness and rhythm

Repetition and rhythm will induce a dissociative state in many people.

TM itself is a "repetition and rhythm" trance induction technique.

You've seen televangelists of course. If you start noticing you'll see that they all use almost the same rhythmic speech and intonation patterns. A great many people will go into a mild dissociative state from just listening to the televangelist over a period of hours, and also from listening to the particular type of droning organ music that is played (you also may have noticed that all of these "healers" use the same type of organ music).

Another classic method of inducing dissociation is chanting. For example, The Church Universal and Triumphant uses chanting heavily, here's an example chant being lead by the group's leader.

Surreptitious "quick trance induction" methods

There are also the "quick trance induction" methods.

You've probably seen many examples of surreptitious quick trance induction, in particular "shock induction", yourself on television. I'm talking about televangelists doing "healing services."

I've already described how the many people in the audience will already be in a dissociative state because of the preacher's speech pattern and because of the droning repetitive organ music.

Then when a person comes up for healing, the preacher gets right in his face and shouts "HEAL!!!" while simultaneously placing his hand on the person's forehead and pushing his head back, and all of this being done while also pushing the person's whole body back into the arms of the preacher's assistants. This creates a sudden overload of the person's cognitive facilities and the result is a dissociative (trance) state. And because it has been suggested to the person many times during the course of the service that this will result in a healing he then he indeed experiences himself as having been healed.

There are other forms of quick trance induction. You can see an example in this video. This technique is similar to shock induction, in that here also the cognitive facilities are overloaded causing a sort of shutdown. In this case Derren Brown (more on him below) induces the overload leading into a dissociative state. He uses sudden changing gestures and unexpected touches combined with a constant patter that keeps changing in intellectual direction. This wouldn't work on everyone, so Brown would have tried it on a number of people before finding someone vulnerable to this approach. But cults do the same thing, they try their particular methods on large numbers of people.

Surreptitiously inducing dissociation via disorientation and sustained overload

"Overload" methods need not involve sudden shock as with the "Heal!" method above. For example, you can entice people to spend a weekend with you that involves spending many hours a day in a closed hotel conference room. This detaches them from their normal world and puts you in control of what they will or will not experience. Then you force them to stay up very late and then make them come in very early in order to deprive them of sleep. You harangue them for many hours on end, degrading them with continuous verbal abuse. You degrade them further by such methods as having them curl up in a fetal position on the floor and cry like babies. You deny them bathroom breaks.

After not so very long they (except the ones who walk out because it isn't working on them) have been totally overloaded and are in a continuous dissociative state. Then after having broken them down, you build them up again by giving them the Secret of Happiness and Success. And because their reality testing has been suppressed (otherwise they would have been one of the people who walked out) they soak it all up, internalizing it as their own personal truth. And by the final moments of the course they are (because it will have been suggested to them) having incredible highs. And in these final moments you will exhort them to go out and share this wonderful experience with others by encouraging everyone they know to sign of up the next course. And they indeed go home and do that!

Surreptitiously inducing dissociation via "love bombing"

"Love bombing" is a common technique for surreptitiously inducing a dissociative state. This man succumbed to love bombing as he describes in his book.

He was invited, under false pretenses, to spend a weekend with a group of people at a large house a few hours away from his home. Upon arrival he was literally surrounded by people who were so glad to see him, so excited to have him there. And who liked him. And who wanted to be friends with him. There was a constant series of group activities. He wasn't ever left alone, and he was subjected to this experience every waking hour.

And he couldn't easily leave the place (he hadn't been the one to drive), and the every aspect of his experience in the place was completely different from his own normal settings (this is called "milieu control").

Then he was told that there would be a very important lecture and everyone was very excited. He of course joined the others and attended the lecture. By this time he was in a significantly deep dissociative state and his reality testing had been suppressed. He left that lecture believing that Sun Yung Moon was the Messiah.

It's time for a practical demonstration: "Cult Leadership 101"

You can watch a demonstration of the use of surreptitious induction of dissociation, and of exploiting it to recruit people into a cult. Please view this demonstration of how to be a cult leader.

The "cult leader" in that video is Derren Brown. Brown is a master of a classic branch of stage magic called "Mentalism." You can find many excerpts from his performances on YouTube.

A "mentalist" is a performer who simulates having supernatural powers but who is honest that it is all a fake. As described in the "Mentalism" article above, a mentalist uses...

...mental acuity, cold reading [see a demo], warm reading, hot reading, principles of stage magic, hypnosis and/or suggestion to present the illusion of mind reading, psychokinesis, extra-sensory perception, precognition, clairvoyance or mind control.

In other words, a mentalist uses the exact same techniques that a cult leader uses. The only difference is that the mentalist is honest about it all being an act.

How did he do it?

What's happening in that video? A lot of things. First, by the time we see him with his audience he has planted a lot of suggestions about his spiritual ability. They know before coming in that he claims to be able to impart a spiritual experience with just a touch. This is a pre-trance suggestion!

Then when he starts speaking his whole manner is calm and soothing and "safe." His voice in particular is calm and soothing and only very subtly modulated at all. He exudes "goodness" and "trustworthiness", which makes it easier for people to relax mentally, and to trust him. This is all trance inducing in many people and some of the people go into a light trance (mild dissociative state).

Which sounds pretty weird. He can put people into a "light trance" just by talking soothingly? This sounds a bit hard to accept because we place very strong esoteric connotations on the word "trance." However, recall that "trance" is just a form of dissociation, and you experience a mild state of dissociation yourself many times a day. And these dissociative episodes are very easily induced. Just watching TV, for example, will induce a mild dissociative state; you are dissociated (in a trance) whenever you become totally absorbed in the show.

Brown is now observing the audience and he notices that the woman in the front row is beginning to show symptoms of dissociation. He engages her in conversation, and then suddenly darts his hand close to her head. And because she is already well along this creates a cognitive overload and she goes into a trance. Brown has performed a "quick trance induction."

She then indeed has a spiritual experience because it has been previously suggested to her many times that Brown could give spiritual experiences to people. Also, when Brown asks "As skeptical?" this is a suggestion that she might not be. Other people hear her describe this experience and it reinforces the strength of Brown's carefully planted suggestions that he can give people spiritual experiences.

Then he takes a break and invites people who aren't buying all of this to leave if they want to. All he is doing is getting rid of the people who haven't proven to be susceptible to his methods. He doesn't want them around because their lack of acceptance might break the mood that he has carefully been building up.

Then he picks someone else whom he notices has been responding. He gets the man to stand up, face away, and close his eyes. Brown then plants the suggestion that the man will fall backwards. He plants this suggestion by saying "Don't worry about falling back, I'll catch you if that happens." Sure enough the guy falls back and has his own spiritual experience.

Which reinforces the suggestion in the rest of the audience that they might have a spiritual experience too! After that the thing just snowballs.

Pretty scary?

Brown has just demonstrated how extraordinarily easy it is to induce a spiritual experience in people and to convince them that you have extraordinary spiritual powers. If Brown had wanted to start a cult at that moment then some of those people might have ended up being his nucleus of adherents. Fortunately, Brown is just trying to demonstrate how frighteningly easy this sort of thing is.

But there are many social predators who have also developed such skills to a virtuoso level. These people also are experts at the other skills of mentalism described above.

Did you find it hugely unsettling that Brown had such an easy time "recruiting" these people? Good. You're beginning to get an appreciation of how frighteningly vulnerable normal human psychology is.

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