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Mind Control and Cults: A Possible and Tragic Error in Logic

Sep 01 2011

Mind Control and Cults: A Possible and Tragic Error in Logic


  1. Milieu Control
  2. Mystical Manipulation
  3. Demand For Purity
  4. Confession
  5. Sacred Science
  6. Loading the Language
  7. Doctrine Over Person
  8. Dispensing of Existence

These are the 8 criteria to ascertain whether a situation or group is engaged in the insidious act of “brainwashing”, as outlined by Robert Jay Lifton, one of the most renowned voices in the psychology of mind control. The criteria are used to examine cults hiding behind the veils of religious, charitable or self-help organizations. They are used to examine groups, organizations and institutions to which people flock in our never-ending human quest for deeper meaning, higher purpose and connection in our lives. If the organization fulfills the majority of the criteria, closer examination, regulation, warning and even disbanding is required.

June 1993, Palo Alto California. Dr. Phil Zimbardo, Stanford University’s famous psychology professor, author of the renowned “Stanford Prison Study” — the most famous (or infamous) study of its kind, showing how normal, educated, healthy young adults can so completely adopt the norms of the milieu in which they are placed that they lose both their own sanity as well as their own long-cultivated sense of self and morality — and the undisputed academic expert in the field of mind-control, is standing with his fatherly hand on my shoulder. The hot June sun pierces through my black graduation gown, and I begin to perspire under the weight of the gown.

Dr. Zimbardo keeps his hand gently and tenderly on my shoulder, occasionally giving it a slight squeeze, as he speaks proudly to my parents. “In all my years of teaching this class, she is the first person who has ever gotten an A+. There are at least 200 students a semester in the Psychology of Mind Control, and I’ve given many A’s, but never an A+. You should be very proud of her. I am sure she will achieve great things in her life.” Fortunately the warmth of the summer day coupled with the insulation of the heavy black gown had already made my face red, so the flush of pride turning my cheeks pink went unnoticed.

September, 1996: Rishikesh, India. The marble grows cold under my thin burgundy “salwar kameez” the Indian garment worn by young ladies, comprising a pair of loose fitting cotton drawstring pants and a flowing, long, matching blouse. After the rains end like clockwork on September 15, the coolness quickly begins to set in, bringing relief to a land which has baked for the last 4 months under first the dry, scorching heat of May and June and then under the wet, humid, heavy heat of the monsoon season. I sit on the marble steps leading down to the banks of the rushing waters of the Ganges, a river worshipped by over a billion people as the embodiment of the Mother Goddess, a river to whose banks millions of Indians flock from across the world, sometimes spending their last rupee to arrive here, full of faith that the touch of the waters will wash away not only the tiredness of the body but lifetimes of karma – that account which has built up due to positive and negative deposits we’ve made through good and bad actions, and whose returns we will surely have to reap at some point in this lifetime or next.

The water rushes by, a thick layer of ethereal mist floating above it, blurring the entire landscape into an impressionist painting : a surreal image of lush, wet green mountains on a canvas of deep blue sky turning dark with night, the painting sprinkled with splashes of light, first yellow then saffron orange, as the sun completes its descent, dropping slowly into the waters of the deep river. The translucent layer of mist blows across the landscape, carried it seems by the waters of the river, obscuring the form and definition of objects, permitting only the bright rays of the setting sun to pass through.

My vision blurred with the landscape, tears cascade from my eyes over my cheeks. Unable or unwilling to maintain focus on any one object, I let my visual field expand, filled with the neverending waters of the continually moving river. My eyes tear even more as the waters flow right to left, downstream, moving, moving, moving in a blur of blue and grey and yellow light across my visual field. Eyes open, yet not seeing, my retina simply a canvas upon which the paint of the landscape is thrown. I cannot process the visual information. Movement, colors, light – they merge together into what seems to be a hallucination, a temporary loss of consciousness, a loss of connection with the predictable world of form.

My cheeks are wet, my lips salty. I am crying without realizing it. The formless, nameless, indescribable reality moving across the waters of the Ganges has pierced the thin wall surrounding the existence to which I am accustomed, and has entered my consciousness, changing it forever. The outside world, the previous world, the world of all the people, places, goals, ideas….it fades from reality, blurred out as if the painter had taken his thumb and smudged the neatly drawn lines, neatly defined reality. That which had been definite, that which had been real, that which was filled with form and meaning becomes, in one stroke of the unknown painter, a smudge, a blur, a distinct impression of some previous existence yet one which no longer has any definable quality, form or shape.

Time? Time has no meaning. The rays of light bouncing, dancing on the rushing water, twinkle and shine, piercing the film of tears across my eyes, blinding my sight, forcing an attention. An attention to what?

The suns last rays, as it dips into the river, continue to dance in the thin, clear, visible band across the top of the water, just below the layer of mist which obscures all from sight. The light pierces my eyes and my consciousness; tears stream down my cheeks. Tears due to the natural reaction to bright light? Tears of an awakened consciousness? Tears of that merging, melting Oneness? The part of my brain that would have wondered from whence the tears came has long ago been silenced, smudged and blurred into the age of my past. Thus, free to flow with no fear of being analyzed, the tears continue to drench my cheeks as I sit on the ever cooling marble steps. My awareness merges with the rushing waters of the current, with the flowing mist, with the blurred landscape. I swim, I bathe, I melt into that moment, into the streaming rays of light dancing on the waters.

How long has it been since the aarti ended? How long ago did the sounds of His voice, singing from another world, fade away? When did the last oil lamp slowly burn out? Has it been minutes or hours or days or lifetimes? Any answer is both possible and plausible, as the ridiculous concept of time as we know it – as I had previously understood the seconds in a minute, the minutes in an hour, the hours in a day — loses all meaning. More tears gush as I laugh out-loud at the concept of linear time, just as an ever wise 10 year old laughs at the way his younger sister still believes in Santa Claus. “Yes, I also used to think that,” he realizes proudly. “Then I grew up.”

The whole idea of linear time a mere joke, our legs pulled by a society that has got us in the palms of their hands….Time. Was it less than 3 weeks ago that I sat on the airplane to India, wondering if it’d really make it 3 ½ months without getting sick, or lost or intolerably fed up from the crowds and, the poverty and the dirt? Was it less than two weeks ago I had first stood on these marble steps, first heard the sounds of Him sing, first watched the flowing waters through the dancing flames of an oil lamp? I laugh again, causing another wave of tears to fall from my eyes. A cosmic joke this idea of time. I have been here forever. There has never been a time I was not listening to Him sing, not watching the river flow past, not dizzy from the blurring mist as it obscured all scenery from view. Or have I just arrived, this very moment? Just awakened, just touched for the very first time? Just born out of the womb, onto the warm, rushing, healing waters of the Ganges?

Lifton’s Checklist. A checklist of what?

  1. Milieu Control
  2. Mystical Manipulation
  3. Demand For Purity
  4. Confession
  5. Sacred Science
  6. Loading the Language
  7. Doctrine Over Person
  8. Dispensing of Existence

I walk up and down, barefoot on the marble pathway, the sun long since set, the mist cleared, the mountains obscured now simply by the darkness. The moon has begun its ascent over the Himalayas and soon would shine brightly overhead.

Was I being brainwashed? Was this a cult? What had happened to me? I recited Lifton’s criteria over and over in my mind.

Milieu Control. This refers to creating an isolated physical environment, one in which the members are not in touch with the “outside” world, including friends, family or society.

I was, of course, isolated in that I was in India and my family and friends were back in USA. But, it went even deeper than that. The ashram has no TV; they are, in fact, forbidden. There was no internet. Phones were available in the marketplace outside, but the difficulty of placing an oversees call ensured that one would rarely invest this much time. There is a small marketplace where one can buy all necessities ranging from toilet paper to shampoo to cashew nuts. Yet, the shopkeepers themselves are isolated, also living in this small village, across the river from the city of Rishikesh, the city itself tiny by Indian standards and itself based on the same principles as the ashram.

Mystical Manipulation. This has to do with the creation of experiences that seem divinely orchestrated, demonstrating the divine/higher power of the Leader. Events take place, actually planned insidiously by the group and/or Leader which appear spontaneous in order to convince others of the special powers held by the Leader.

In my mere two weeks in this unimaginable land, I had been witness to countless moments where Swamiji’s connection with the Divine was clear. His powers of knowledge, of insight, of vision, of understanding were clearly far beyond that of a human. His power over himself, over others and over the natural world around him was obvious. Yet, had it been manipulated? Was I a pawn in someone’s hands? Was the whole thing a trick?

Demand for Purity. According to Lifton, the members of a cult are exhorted to be “pure” compared to the outside world. Actions, thoughts and tendencies of others are condemned, and great emphasis is put on purification of one’s own thoughts and habits. Members typically learn to feel guilt and/or shame when they do not live up to these demands for purity.

Yes, this too was part of my new existence. Aspects of my previous world which had seemed perfectly normal and natural were now impulses to be quelled. Alcohol – even a small glass of wine with dinner or champagne to celebrate an occasion – was forbidden and seen as poisonous as heavy drugs. Sex, romance, passion – all were impulses that must be checked and overcome if one was to live a truly spiritual, pure and holy life. Idle harmless gossip, meaningless chatter, entertaining games of cards or evenings at the movies – while not considered “evil” or “sinful” these were all activities which must not be engaged in, for they distract one’s attention and waste one’s precious time, preventing the true attainment of spiritual illumination and divine purity.

Yes, we learned quickly that one’s thoughts, actions and words all must be pure. That which was not pure must be given, sacrificed, surrendered, and prayers should be said for the strength to remain pure, holy and divine.

Confession. In a brainwashing situation, Lifton and others explain, the concept of confession is of prime importance. When a member of the cult commits mistakes, when one does not live up to the ideal of purity, it is imperative to confess, either privately to the Leader or publically.

Here, yes, I can see how people come to Swamiji, bow down at His feet, and – with tears pouring from their eyes – admit the mistakes they’ve made, praying for Him to somehow absolve them of both the guilt as well as the impending negative karma they know they will face.

He is infinitely compassionate, forgiving all, yet warning them that confession, itself, is not the ultimate answer. They must truly change themselves, vow to be different and pray for strength not to continue their erroneous ways.

Sacred Science. As defined by Lifton Sacred science refers to the idea that “the group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.”

Yes, I realize as I begin to pace back and forth on the cold marble platform overlooking the rushing current of Ganga, the moon now high overhead, casting its glistening light upon the dark waters, this too, rings true for the ashram. The ideology, though not unique to this particular ashram yet shared by millions of people across the country of India, certainly is considered to be the ultimate Truth. The practices, the theories, the concepts, the ideas – these are definitely considered to be the best way, the Truest way, the purest way. Pujya Swamiji is seen not merely as a spokesperson for God, but actually as a divine incarnation, as a manifestation of the Divine on Earth. I, too, in His presence, have had the indisputable, undeniable awareness of being in the presence of Divine Love, Divine Light and Divine Truth, the closest experience to God that I have ever had or heard of.

Loading the Language. This includes ways of thought-stopping, so that negative, critical thoughts do not arise, as well as particular jargon and language which are used to make the new members’ thought processes conform to that of the group/cult.

Here, in order to rid ourselves of the endless chattering of the mind (yet, also, one could argue, to put an end to negativity and critical thinking) mantras are used – sacred phrases from the scriptures that one chants, over and over again, hundreds of times a day until the chanting becomes automatic and unconscious. As the mantra takes over the mind, and the mind becomes still, free of the ceaseless chattering, constant wandering and incessant commentary to which we have grown accustomed in our lives, a distinct and pervasive serenity takes over. The mind is no longer either the master or an annoying yet omnipresent guest in one’s home. Rather, slowly, the mind becomes the slave, no longer wandering of its own free will, but a tool in the hands of the Higher Intellect. This is a moment to be yearned for, worked for, prayed for – the moment at which one has achieved control over the mind, ridding it of its automated thoughts and bringing it into line with the Divine.

Mantras are certainly, I concede as the pace of my steps quickens, thought stopping techniques; their very goal, as stated, implied and understood is to stop the thoughts, to, in fact, replace the thoughts with the mantra. The measure of success in one’s spiritual progress is how easily one is able to still the mind and stop the thoughts.

Doctrine over person. The seventh item on Lifton’s checklist refers to members’ individual and personal experiences being subordinated to the group ideology. Experiences that run contrary to the ideology are reinterpreted in order to fit the schema of thought.

Yes, I have occasionally heard Swamiji and others dismiss criticism of the ideology as ego or fear or ignorance. Experiences which vary from the ideology are not denied completely; yet they are certainly re-stated in such a way as to be understandable to other members and to better fit in with the belief system.

Dispensing of existence. This last criterion means that the group/cult typically claims that only they are saved, enlightened, awake, conscious, etc. and that others are not. Further, the members must try to convert others to the ideology, to make them a part of the group, for their own well being. Those who are not part of the group/cult must be rejected.

This last criterion is the only one I could not fit my experience into. Yet, according to Lifton and others, not all 8 criteria are essential for an experience to be one of brainwashing and a group to be a cult. Seven out of eight is certainly more than enough to safely put the ashram in which I was staying, the place to which my heart had pulled me more strongly than anything before, the place which I was sure was to be my home, into the box of “cult”, my Guru into the box of “Cult Leader” and the opening, awakening, illuminating, transforming experiences into the box of “brainwashing.”


I pace back and forth, first quickly with that familiar sense of anxiety that arises whenever I fear I am making a mistake. What if this is a cult? What if I’ve been brainwashed? What if I will need to be de-programmed when I go home? The experience fits Lifton’s criteria which are surely well-researched, well-authenticated, replicated and widely agreed upon by the experts.

Yet, in the midst of that moment of inner panic, that moment of doubting myself completely, that moment of suspecting that my own intuition and feelings may actually have been mystically co-opted by another, I stop walking. Wait. Here I am. Sane. Aware. Awake. Conscious. Still able to let my mind wander. I silently sing all the lyrics to Fire and Rain, my favorite James Taylor song. I still remember them. I sing commercial jingles – for soap, for car dealerships, for fast food joints. Still remember them all. I complete the multiplication tables, first of 3, then 4 then 8. As quick as ever. I begin to subtract by 3’s from 100. 97, 94, 91, 88, 85….no problem. Brain still works. I name the capitals of the 50 states of America. I can still do it. Brain is still there.

Wait. I am here. I am me. I know and remember and can do all that I ever knew, remembered and could do. I am here. I am me. I am conscious and awake and aware.

My steps become slow and calm. I am comforted, oddly enough, by my own ability to still go back into the senseless world that God has taken me from. I am comforted by my ability to repeat and remember things I would never actually want to repeat or remember! But it is more than that. I am comforted by an awareness, a deep awareness from a place in my being that did not take Dr. Phil Zimbardo’s mind control class, a place in my being that has not been completely indoctrinated by the Western, psychological, scientific community, a place in my being that is still free to feel, to sense, to intuit, to know. A place in my being that does not need to be told by another – yes, this is right, or no, this is wrong. A place that knows.

The awareness begins to wash over my consciousness, welling up from this place deep within and then overflowing, almost volcanic in the strength and speed of its eruption. This is right. This is true. This is not an insidious cult, but a divine intervention in that which was sure to be an otherwise very mediocre life. My brain may certainly be getting cleaned, but it is far from being washed!

A possible error in logic and assumption

As the awareness of the Truth, the realness, the rightness of this place and this experience washes over me, I wonder about Lifton and his checklist. He is not wrong. These criteria are certainly indicative of cults and brainwashing. One could, as we had done in Zimbardo’s class, apply them to Jonestown, to the Moonies, to a dozen other organizations stealing the minds, freedom and funds of their members for their own benefit. Yet, does that mean that this place, this sanctuary of peace, meaning and divine connection for tens of thousands of people, is also a cult engaged in mind control?

I thought about the “logic” questions on the GRE exam. Numerous questions are some variation of the following theme: “If all zingbats are zoonies and all zoonies are zoftings, are all zingbats zoftings?” Or, “If all patseys are palsies and some palsies are platsies, are all platsies patseys?” In order to answer these questions, if one is not familiar with the common errors in logic the exam is testing, one merely has to substitute common words. So, if the question reads “If all zingbats are zoonies and all zoonies are zoftings, are all zingbats zoftings?” one simply has to say “Okay let zingbats be tangerines, let zoonies be oranges, and let zoftings be fruit.” The question now reads: “If all tangerines are oranges and all oranges are fruit, are all tangerines fruit?” One can easily answer yes.

However, a tiny sleight of hand renders the answer negative. All zingbats may be zoonies (tangerines are oranges) and all zoonies may be zoftings (oranges are fruit) but even though all zingbats are zoftings (tangerines are fruit) that does NOT mean that all zoftings are zingbats (fruit is tangerines). There are many types of fruit which are not tangerines. The makers of the GRE exam catch innumerable unsuspecting graduate school applicants in this way. If the answer to “Are all zingbats zoftings?” is yes, then we assume that the answer to “Are all zoftings zingbats?” must also be yes. But this is an error in logic. All tangerines are fruit, but not all fruit is tangerines.

Might we be making the same mistake in society as students make on their exams? Might we be just as easy to catch in our judgments as graduate school applicants? If all cults fulfill Lifton’s criteria, does that mean that simply fulfilling the criteria makes an organization a cult? If all instances of brainwashing abide by these criteria, does abiding by these criteria automatically mean that one is engaged in brainwashing?

If we assume that just because all tangerines are fruit, that all fruit is also tangerines, we will miss out on the infinite joy of experiencing apples, berries, melons, banana. Similarly, if we assume that just because all cults fulfill these criteria, that fulfillment of the criteria is, in and of itself, enough to define an organization as a cult, might we miss out on the possibility of organizations and groups that challenge us, teach us, touch us and transform us in a way far beyond that which we are used to? Might we, in our insatiable effort to name, define, list and categorize all experiences according to that which we have studied, make a tragic mistake of sticking a potentially beautiful, beneficial, positive and progressive experience into the box of “cult” simply because we don’t yet have any other way to define it?

If we tell society that just because all tangerines are fruit that all fruit is, therefore by definition tangerines, we are stealing from them the possibility of picking blackberries, of spreading raspberry jam on hot toast, of having mango juice run down their chin. We have limited their entire fruit experience to simply tangerines. Similarly, if we tell society that to control your environment, master your mind, strive for purity, confess your mistakes, chant mantras to tame the wandering thoughts, and live in the presence of one who is a manifestation of the Divine, is to join a cult might we be depriving them of an environment that could help them, heal them and bring them peace?

Our responsibility as psychotherapists

People join cults as well as valid spiritual organizations because they are searching for something – either consciously or unconsciously. Someone who is completely content and satisfied with his life is unlikely to reach out to an organization promising greater peace, meaning and fulfillment. There just isn’t enough time in life. If we are thoroughly fulfilled by that which is already on our plate, we are unlikely to want to heap something else on there as well. The fact that people who are educated, intelligent and prosperous and whose lives are full of potential still get trapped by cults and brainwashers should be a message to society. What is it that the cult, charismatic leader or brainwashing organization is offering them that is so appealing they are prepared to leave their discerning minds at the doorstep? The answer, of course, varies from person to person and situation to situation. However, nearly all answers will fall within a few categories: love, acceptance, defined and definable rules, a commonality and community with others, a sense of service and thus meaning in life, connection to a Higher Power either one within ourselves or one in the form of the Leader. If educated, intelligent people were not hungry for meaning and peace in their lives and love and acceptance in their relationships, and some kind of understanding of the greater purpose of our lives on Earth, there would be no need for Lifton’s checklist because so few people would join cults as to render them virtually irrelevant in the bigger picture of society. If people were not so fed up with their own inability to understand and master their minds perhaps they would not be so ready to give up these minds into someone else’s hands.

If we are going to study the methods of mind control and the criteria by which something qualifies as such, it is important I believe to also study the underlying causes in society which may be leading otherwise intelligent, capable and discerning people into the clutches. Their needs are valid. Their yearnings are valid. Their emptiness and lack of meaning is valid. Therefore, if – as professionals in the field of psychotherapy – our goal is to not merely classify and categorize organizations as “cult” or “not cult”, “brainwashing” or “not brainwashing” but rather to actually help people, we must be prepared to allow organizations which DO provide what people are looking for to flourish. To simply name the need for connection, meaning or purpose is not enough. We have not served the people if we simply say, “Oh it is the need for connection, meaning, purpose and understanding in life that leads people into the open arms of a cult.” Rather, we must be prepared to a) accept that typically our society and culture does NOT provide what people need on an inner, deeper level for true peace, serenity and joy in life, and b) that generally spiritual organizations DO provide this.

Yes, some doctors rape their patients on the operating table. That does not mean that one should go into an operation exceedingly wary of the doctor or suspect all doctors of being potential rapists. Similarly, some clergymen rape young members of their congregation. Yet, in general, clergymen provide an invaluable and irreplaceable service in our society, bringing understanding, solace and a meaningful framework of existence to countless people.

Some spiritual leaders or charismatic leaders of organizations are megalomaniacs and narcissists, concerned only with their own power, image, fame or other motive. The organizations they run use a variety of sinister methods to mask their true motivations and to trap members. However, the methods they use are mostly just mischievously co-opted forms of legitimate techniques employed by legitimate organizations working to help people live better lives.

While we work to ensure that all members of society retain control over their own lives, their own minds and their own bank accounts and that the power hungry, dysfunctional leaders and members of cults do not rob fellow citizens of their inalienable rights, we must not lose sight of the reality that spirituality and both ancient and modern spiritual traditions may share many characteristics with the cults to be avoided, yet they actually hold within them crucial and irreplaceable keys to helping people live lives that are satisfying, meaningful and deeply connected. We must not, as the old saying goes, throw out the baby with the bathwater.



Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China, Norton (New York City), 1961

Layton, Debrorah. Seductive Poison: Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple, Anchor, 1999

“The Psychology of Mind Control” senior year psychology course taught at Stanford by Dr. Phil Zimbardo, including innmerable articles, lectures, movies etc.

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