Scott is the Founder of Skeptic Meditations. He speaks from experience in entering and leaving an ashram. Here we talk about the reliance on external authority.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: With regards to the tactics to keep members in a cult-like organization, what seem like the more prominent examples?
Scott from SkepticMeditations.com: There’s many tactics that cult-like groups, like Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order, use to trap followers. First, is the unlivable ideal of renunciation. It’s a trap because its irreconcilable. No human can ever be perfect, though followers idealize stories of their founder, like SRF’s Paramahansa Yogananda.
“I killed Yogananda long ago. No one dwells in this body now but God.” proclaimed Paramahansa Yogananda.
Meditation techniques are often prescribed to followers of Eastern enlightenment. Why? Meditation done right is presumed to still thought, which is a way to kill the ego, to become a Yogananda or God-like being. It’s a psychological trap for followers
Jacobsen: What runs through the mind of a believer to keep them bound to the cult or cult-like organization?
Scott: People trapped in cult-like organizations are in a double bind. There get trapped inside the no-win kind of communication designed to keep followers obeying the authority figure.
Cult-like organizations implicitly or explicitly communicate to their followers such as:
“You are asleep or ignorant. Meditation is the path to awakening or knowledge of God. You are asleep or ignorant, so keep meditating.
You are ego/self-centered. Meditation is the path to ego destruction/self-transcendence. If you are not yet egoless or selfless, keep meditating.
You are racked with desires. Meditation is the path to fulfillment of all desires, therefore becoming desireless. If you are not yet desireless, keep meditating.”
In each of these examples, the cult-like group keeps you psychologically trapped in the double bind. If you are meditating and trying to follow the given techniques for enlightenment but do not get results (i.e., do not still your thoughts or become enlightened), the group says that it’s your fault.
Your ego got in the way and that you just to keep trying to do better. The followers are often filled with doubts about whether they will ever be good enough to “make it”, to attain the highest states of enlightenment.
Jacobsen: How is the inculcation of self-doubt and reliance on an external authority part and parcel of the maintenance of the follower mentality in a cult?
Scott: Mental or psychological control is easy when people doubt themselves.
Cult-like groups and gurus use many methods to to instill self-mistrust in followers. They patronize followers (treat them with kindness while betraying superiority). Or, they assume superiority (know what’s best for others).
Or, they use any method that will instill fear, guilt, or shame. Cult-like groups belittles reason, analytical thinking, and personal experience.
They emphasize the dangers of ego, lower self, self-interest. As I noted above cult-like groups often provides methods such as meditation to overcome self or ego. The group often emphasizes service to guru or authority versus taking care of one’s self-interests, such as family
In cult-like groups, if followers question any abuse they are told that it is spiritual “training” and it is beyond understanding in a rational way. “God works in mysterious ways”. And of course, they assume the leader of the group is attuned or at-one with God.
Once inside the SRF ashrams the environment was very closed. Everything the monks did had to be approved by your counselor or by the ashram superiors. Or, whatever was offered in the ashrams was pre-approved and monks were expected to accept it as coming from Guru, from God.
In this setup the SRF leaders and monastic superiors could do no wrong. Many members endured physical and psychological abuses in the name of “training”. That is, for the spiritual benefit of the members to breakdown their self-centered ego-consciousness.
Clearly, all abuses–physical or psychological–could be justifed as “training”. The sad part was that for the first few years I believed the abuses were for my own good. Of course, eventually–after many years of allowing abuses–I finally say through the control and manipulation, resisted it and eventually was able to leave the ashram
Jacobsen: Even if there aren’t formal methodologies on some levels for the individual follower, how does the follower make excuses for the abuse and bad behavior of some of the leaders of some cults and cult-like organizations?
Scott: On my website I’ve posted the many formal rules and vows of the SRF Order, which I belonged. In addition, the SRF Lessons–which are available to the public when they become SRF members–contain 100s of SRF “official” rules and methods regarding vegetarian diet, sexual abstinence, and a variety of esoteric meditation techniques.
There’s something called the “sunk-cost” fallacy. Where we invest so much time and energy and possibly money into something that even if its a failure we can’t cut our losses and give it up. Investing emotionally also plays a huge role in why followers have a difficult time escaping the traps of abuse in cult-like organizations.
Jacobsen: What is the general marketing that cults or cult-like organizations present to the outside world, i.e. the warning signs and signifiers of a potentially harmful organization?
Scott: With the Eastern, Hindu- and Buddhist-inspired, groups they often use meditation techniques as a way to gain followers. Meditation is the gateway. Meditation is scientized.
That is it is promoted as a practical and scientific method. Meditation practice is supposed to bring the faithful practitioner peace, material success and happiness, and ultimate enlightenment.
Cult-like ideologies also promote that they have all the answers. People who are most vulnerable are those who are going through a challenging life transition. That’s why you often find young, college-age disciples who join cults.
Or, people who are suffering and seek a way to end that suffering, often by escaping into an idealized model of the world as “spiritual training” where suffering is given ultimate meaning.
Also, these groups and leaders of cults claim to have divine dispensations. That is the group has a mandate from God to bring the lost to the Truth. Of course, only this cult group has the answers. Groups like Scientology often charge exorbitant fees to “clear” themselves of evil thetans through a method they call auditing.
I recommend the documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. I believe many of the behaviors and tactics used by Scientology are also used by other cult-like groups. Just in varying degrees, not in kind.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Scott.
Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to share my thoughts and experiences about what I believe is an important topic.