Avoiding Abuses and Pitfalls
Along the Path
Copyright © 1995
All Rights Reserved
by Steven Hassan and Lama Surya Das
This article offers some vital "consumer" guidelines
and specific questions that should be asked when considering any involvement
with a spiritual group. I asked my friend, lama Surya Das, the first officially
ordained western Tibetan buddhist lama to give his perspective, and he graciously
wrote an introduction for me from a Buddhist perspective. My intention was
always to add perspectives from respected people from all the major world
religions into the introduction, and hopefully this will be done in the coming
Unfortunately, some people looked at Surya's introduction and
jumped to a false conclusion that I had abandoned my Judaism and become a
buddhist. This was never the case, although in my spiritual journey I have
tried to learn about other traditions. Also, in my role as a professional
counselor, it is a necessity for me to understand a good deal about many religious
traditions, in order to help my clients see how destructive cult leaders and
their groups were deviating from core values, practices and religious traditions.
In a desire to be clear about my own spiritual orientation (with
no interest in trying to convert anyone), I am a member of an independent
Jewish congregation in Brookline, Massachusetts called Temple Beth Zion (www.templebethzion.org).
The rabbis are Moshe Waldoks and Ellen Pildis and the orientation is one of
Jewish renewal. I have been a member there since 1999 and I can truly say
that I have felt I have found my spiritual "home." At the congregation,
we pray, meditate, chant, sing, dance, study, share and are very involved
with doing service to the community. The focus in on encouraging each member
to learn, grow and participate at their own speed. The rabbis are non-dogmatic
and encourage questions and demonstrate responsibility and accountability.
There is humor. There is joy. There is a sense of a vibrant spiritual community.
We are interested in inclusivity and not being exclusive. For example, at
the end of each Friday night Shabbat service, we recite a prayer of peace
from one of the other world religious traditions before reciting the Jewish
prayer for peace.
You might wonder what my orientation might be when I am counseling
someone from a destructive religious cult? First and foremost, I always try
my best to address my client's interests and needs, not my own. Secondly,
my focus is on helping the person to think for themselvesto validate
each person's right to be an individual, to get in touch with their own thoughts,
feelings and freedom of choice.
I disclose my belief in God, and my belief that Judaism, Christianity
and Islam (as well as other wisdom traditions) are all based on two fundamental
commandments: Love God with all your heart, mind and strength and love your
neighbor as yourself. If asked, I tell my client that I believe we were intended
to each be unique individuals, with talents and abilities intended to be used
by us to help the greater community. I tell my client that I believe that
God want us to have free will and to have the freedom to choose to follow
God. It is my belief that if God wanted us to be mind-controlled slaves, (S)He
would have made us incapable of disobedience.
My counseling approach is custom tailored to each client's background
and current needs. However, I cannot be all things to all people. Sometimes,
being an expert on cults, mind control as well as a licensed counselor is
not enough. So, I usually ask former cult members to assist me as well as
other experts. For example, whenever I am called on to counsel an individual
from a Christian Bible cult like Kip McKean's International Churches of Christ
(ICC)not to be confused with the mainstream Church of Christ or the United
Church of Christ, I ask an orthodox Christian (often my minister friend, Rev.
Bob Pardon) to assist me in addressing theological and Biblical issues. The
focus is on offering a grounded, orthodox theological perspective, not to
proselytize. I have grave concerns about any cult counselors who use their
own religious orientation to "save" cult members into their one
"true" church or religious institution. This goes for Jewish cult
ministries too. I think the focus must begin on dealing with the cult mind
control issues, enabling the person to think for themselves. For this reason,
I will only accept cases in which the families agrees that I am not being
hired to "get the person back to their religion", but to do what
they want to do. Again, the focus must be for the individual to reevaluate
what the he or she has been indoctrinated to believe. To promote and encourage
reality-testing. Likewise, after the counseling succeeds in achieving this
purpose, the individual is encouraged to continue on (if they want to) their
spiritual journey. For more information about my approach please read the
Frequently Asked Questions about the Strategic
One of stated biases as a counselor is to encourage the individual
to understand their own spiritual rootsas a necessary part of regaining a
solid footing. For example, if a person was raised Catholic and was recruited
into the ICC, with their heavy anti-Catholic bias, I think it is very important
for the ex-member to speak with Catholic representatives to help neutralize
the indoctrination. For many, it will take many weeks or months before they
feel ready to investigate anything spiritual. For others, healthy recovery
includes actively participating in a spiritual practice and community. For
still others, the healthy choice is to not believeand choose humanism or agnosticism.
To this end, I can call on my friend, Tom Ferrick, Humanist chaplain at Harvard.
The key is empowering people to think for themselves. I am very
interested in receiving suggestions and feedback about this article and this
website, in an effort to continue to make it improve, so that we may help
as many people as possible.
January 29, 2002
As a Westerner who has become a fully ordained Tibetan Buddhist lama, I have
devoted over twenty five years of my life in spiritual practice, establishing
meditation centers and monasteries, and teaching others how to further their
own practice. Helping to bring a rich religious tradition to the West has
been exciting, gratifying, and very meaningful for me. However, when a religion
makes a transition from one culture to another, there is fertile ground for
all sorts of new developments, both positive and negative. Awareness of these
issues can become extremely significant.
As a leader, I wish to be aware of my own responsibility in helping people
to find themselves and experience that which is wholesome, useful, and beneficial,
while sidestepping the rest. Great good has been brought forth by new religious
groups in recent decades. Yet, I am disturbed by certain patterns of abuses
that routinely occur along the spiritual path, which is why I am writing this
article and researching this subject. All groups exhibit certain characteristic
problems. If and when they become destructive and damaging, these characteristics
are genuine cause for concern.
When I first began teaching Buddhism six years ago, the Dalai Lama himself
told me not to be afraid to make mistakes, but to continue to learn from them.
He added, "Be creative. Each decision you make ought to be motivated
by compassion. Seek to contribute to others, not to convert others."
Motivation and intention are determining factors in the result of our actions.
Buddha said, "As we think, so we become."
We are all aware of the dangers of placing anyone or anything upon a pedestal
and the disillusionment that almost inevitably ensues. Few today are ignorant
of the dangers and corrupting influence of dogma, dependence, and the misuse
of power. "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,"
Lord Acton wrote. Sectarianism, insularity, and aggressive proselytizing can
easily turn into fanaticism, authoritarianism, and even fascism. Yet are we
as aware of the more subtle, almost addictive joys of believing, of joining,
and the too-often attendant sorrows and disappointments? Are we aware of the
seductions of surrendering ourselves to something seemingly greater than us,
of the security and comfort of belonging, of conforming, of feeling part of
The more deeply we experience and realize our own inalienable connectedness
and integral place in the universe, the freer and more consciously aware we
can be regarding what we do in life, and whom we choose to associate with,
for how long, and why. The less conscious we are, the more the unacknowledged
and unknown, dark forces in our psyche drive us - often driving us where we
might not wish to go.
We have been through an intense era of social change that has given rise
to alternatives and new forms of all kinds. The cover article in the Nov.
28th, 1994, Newsweek was entitled "The Search for the Sacred: America's
Quest for Spiritual Meaning." The magazine reported: "Fifty-eight
percent of Americans polled feel the need to experience spiritual growth."
It seems safe to say that most people are seeking something. The emergence
of new groups and intentional communities has doubtless accomplished far more
good than harm. But how, where, and with whom we explore our spiritual and
personal growth remains, as ever, extraordinarily important. Along with the
flourishing spiritual marketplace come abusive gurus, exploitative teachers,
messiahs, prophets, therapists, and mind-controlling groups. In fact, most
of us routinely participate in some form or other of cultic behavior: repressing
dissent; devaluing outsiders; depending too much on leaders and authority
figures; seeking totalistic solutions to existential problems; feeling superior
and even self-righteous; resisting the wish of leave-takers to depart, etc.
We must learn from the past if we do not want to keep repeating our mistakes.
For a sane, healthy, and harmonious future to be possible, I think that we
must be very honest with ourselves and each other, and engender leadership
(not merely followership) in others, bringing out the best in each and all
In my endeavor to learn more about the mostly unexamined dark side of the
spiritual marketplace, I have become aware of Steven Hassan, author of the
well-known book Combatting Cult Mind Control. Steve was deceptively recruited
into a front group of the Moon organization in the early 1970s and spent more
than two years in the cult as one of its American leaders. After a serious
car accident and numerous days of counseling, he came to realize that the
Moon organization was, in reality, very different from what he wanted to believe
it was. He made the decision to leave the organization and expose its illegal
and unethical activities. He is now a licensed mental health counselor in
Boston and has worked for nearly two decades to help educate the public about
the dangers of destructive mind control cults. His work also involves helping
individuals and their families heal from abusive involvements. He is also
no stranger to spirituality and to alternatives to mainstream religion, being
someone who values the spirit and regularly practices meditation and prayer.
Some groups may feel threatened by scientific research on cultic behavior
and mind control (thought-reform, brainwashing, hypnosis) techniques. They
need not feel that way, if they behave ethically and provide choice without
undue, coercive influence. Many scholars and researchers in this field, like
ourselves, respect religious beliefs and religious systems and can appreciate
diversity, endorse basic human rights, and support individuals and groups
following their own way.
As a full time member of a religious order, I personally have found Steve's
perspective, work, and experience of immense interest, being both fascinating
and beneficial. This sort of diagnostic mental health approach to the actions
of groups and individuals - rather than focusing on their purported beliefs
- seems quite relevant in understanding what is happening in society and in
our own minds today regarding various new movements.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to objectively evaluate a belief system
from within it. Yet it can often seem unfair to judge belief systems from
the point of view of an outside observer. Most human beings uphold blatant
irrational beliefs, for better or for worse. Better that we scrutinize ourselves
and our own groups regarding our own weaknesses and learn from them rather
than have them blow up in our faces later.
Dr. Herbert Guenther, the foremost contemporary Buddhist scholar, uses the
term cultic when describing the behavior of certain early followers of the
Buddha, who mistakenly worshipped the man rather than the truth of his message
and the enlightenment he embodied and taught. The historical Buddha himself
forbade his followers from making images of him.
In the sixth century BC, the historical Buddha said:
Rely not on the teacher/person, but on the teaching.
Rely not on the words of the teaching, but on the spirit of the words.
Rely not on theory, but on experience.
Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
Do not believe anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything because it is written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with
reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept
it and live up to it.
Kalama Sutra (ancient Buddhist text)
Lest we misunderstand each other, we must remember that the words we use
each have different associations for each of us. Concepts are not reality,
but a mere shadow of it - the map is not the territory. I also want to caution
you not to become blinded by the truth and power of words either. I am aware
of at least one non-Buddhist destructive group which uses this same quote
from Buddha and uses it to recruit people into a state of blind obedience
and servitude. In order for Buddha's words to have real meaning, they must
be applied behaviorally on a daily basis.
I think that if we can enjoy authentic public discourse and free inquiry
into the matters that concern us, we must endeavor in our discussions to explore,
to know for ourselves, and to communicate how things actually are - if we
are to live a sane, righteous, and even a decent life. While seeking truth,
let us not overlook the simple virtues of honesty and ethical behavior. Then
even stumbling blocks can become stepping stones along the way.
The Buddha exhorts us "to be a lamp unto ourselves, that one's innate
purity of heart is the sole refuge." I hope that the following pages
will elucidate some of the spiritual issues that are part of an ongoing discussion
about freedom, democracy, and human rights today.
Whenever the subject of mind control comes up, an almost inevitable discussion
ensues about family systems, advertising, salespeople, the military, and the
even the Catholic Church. A great confusion currently exists concerning how
to make meaningful distinctions. I have heard people say time and time again
that "everything is mind control." Overgeneralizations like this
obscure important distinctions. As a person who has spent almost two decades
researching and considering this topic, I offer the following thoughts.
All influence processes can be visualized as falling somewhere along a continuum.
In one direction of the continuum, mind control techniques can be regarded
as positive and constructive, promoting understanding and choice while respecting
an individual's integrity. In the other direction, mind control is regarded
as destructive and constricts understanding and choice while undermining personal
integrity. Since mind control techniques are not inherently good or evil,
they can be used ethically and practically to enhance our lives, expand choices,
and to cultivate our creativity and individuality.
These techniques can also be used to destroy individuality, stunt personal
growth, and create virtual slaves, as exemplified by Jim Jones, David Koresh,
and Adolf Hitler. People can be deceptively manipulated and indoctrinated
to distrust their ability to feel, to think, and to make mature decisions.
Destructive cults want to control people to enable them to expand their temporal
power and raise money. They exist to serve totalistic dictators, not to serve
the people. They desire to rule through power, not with the power of love.
Charismatic leaders often stray into temptation to exploit their power over
others in dangerous ways.
The locus of control for the use of mind control techniques should lie within
our selves, not with some external authority figure. True spirituality demands
personal awareness and responsibility. The right to believe whatever you want
should be upheld. However, behaviors must be scrutinized in order to protect
human liberty. Behaviorally, all relationships and involvements can be evaluated
by objective criteria such as the United Nations Universal Declaration of
Human Rights (available at any library or through Amnesty International).
The position that religious groups should not be scrutinized is most vigorously
promoted by organizations that have notoriously bad histories of abuse. They
have spent large amounts of money in public relations campaigns and have even
funded publications and conferences to support their positions. They have
also expended great effort to do propaganda campaigns to attack former members
and critics in an effort to neutralize the dissemination of factual information.
I have personally been subjected to incredible harassment, with extraordinary
lies manufactured about me that I kidnap and even torture people to renounce
their religious beliefs. While I have been subjected to nuisance law suits,
systematic attempts to character assassinate me, and efforts to intimidate
me to stop my criticisms, I refuse to be silent. I choose to exercise my First
Amendment right to speak freely, and I offer proof for what I say. I suppose
that I should feel good that destructive cults attack me so blatantly as proof
that I am being effective.
On another extreme, I am put down by some people who dislike the fact that
I believe in and publicly defend spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation.
Some people angrily tell me that all religion is bad and all religious leaders
are dishonest. Those people, it seems, have had some really bad experiences
and, in my opinion, have "thrown the baby out with the bath water."
It is lamentable that so many people have had such bad experiences. It appears
that they are afraid to trust anything that can't be analyzed and proven "scientifically."
Their capacity to fully develop, take risks, and grow are seriously diminished.
I feel sorry for people who have adopted a rigid posture toward life which
will only validate an analytic, linear model for understanding. Without imagination,
wonder, and trust in non-analytic, intuitive ways of knowing, people can become
cynical, defensive and even paranoid.
I know that fasting, silence, solitude, sleep deprivation, and other techniques
have long been used by different religious traditions. I believe they can
be very useful and liberating in terms of unfreezing one's own habitual conditioning.
They become unethical and destructive when they are used in combination with
deception and a diminution of personal choice and integrity.
Due to my own cult experience, I have had to do some very intense personal
reflection. I have had to sort out the good experiences from the bad while
a member of the Moon cult. In retrospect, I can say without a doubt that a
good deal of my personal spiritual experience was valid and had a beneficial
impact on my development. As a result, I have had to really examine myself
thoroughly and consciously evaluate my beliefs and actions. Fortunately, my
core spirituality preceded my Moonie indoctrination, and so when I left that
group, I had some basic beliefs to return to as a kind of stable base. For
example, I believe that love is stronger than fear and that truth is stronger
My own spiritual path has shown me the importance of balance and the necessity
of being in touch with your thoughts and feelings. I believe that true spiritual
growth demands awareness and responsibility and not just blind submission
to another human being or to the dogma of some unseen deity. I have come to
the conclusion that, for me, spiritual traditions that focus on healing the
mind/body relationship and on the inseparable relationship between the sacred
and the profane, rather than fostering a split of mind/body brings more satisfying
results. What I mean by this is acknowledging and accepting feelings, thoughts,
and needs rather than denying them or pretending that they do not exist. For
me, what makes sense is wholeness, not fragmentation. Love rather than fear
and guilt should be the prime motivator. I choose to believe in a basically
friendly universe, rather than a hostile universe. Lacking an objective, absolute
reference point for "truth," I prefer to believe in the goodness
of life because it feels "right" and because the alternative would
be too bleak. Of course, I believe that there are many legitimate paths to
developing one's spirituality. I believe that it is up to each person to take
responsibility for his or her own life.
Therefore, contrary to the disinformation put out against me by destructive
cults, I am very liberal and open minded about new religions. However, just
because it is new doesn't make it healthy or bone fide. Likewise, the more
extreme the claim is by the leader and the doctrine, the more caution I recommend
before becoming involved. For example, just because a person claims to be
the most spiritually advanced being on earth in the past 25,000 years doesn't
make it so. There are so many psychics, mediums, and channelers today who
are making claims of special wisdom and spiritual knowledge. People must learn
to be more discerning and to not merely accept passively. I believe if an
individual is legitimate, he or she will be honest and forthright in all communications
and actions. An atmosphere where questions and skepticism are accepted and
even encouraged is a good sign of a healthy group. Also, there will be no
heavy pressure for quick and full commitments. A spiritual leader will exemplify
those qualities that show love, compassion, and respect. I have been impressed
by Western spiritual leaders like Lama Surya Das and Jack Kornfield who demonstrate
through their actions that their quest for enlightened living and healthy
group process is achievable today.
I also strongly recommend that periodically - at least once or twice each
year - a "vacation" be taken to step out of your environment and
"reality test." Ask yourself: When I started doing "x"
what were my goals? What were my expectations? Where did I think I would be
in one year? Five years, Ten years? If I knew then (at the beginning of "x")
what I know now, would I still do "x"? If not, why not? What would
you do differently? If I hadn't done "x," what would I have likely
done? Also, if I had a magic wand and I could be doing now what I really would
like to do, what would that be?
In the following pages, I have:
--Helped to compile some basic assessment questions that can help people
--Summarized the four basic components of mind control from my book Combatting
Cult Mind Control to help provide a basis for evaluation.
--Summarized the three stages of mind control by Kurt Lewin as described by
Edgar Schein in Coercive Persuasion (Norton,1961).
--Summarized Robert Jay Lifton's eight themes of thought reform based on his
research of the Communist "re-education" programs of Mao Tse-tung.
These were taken from Chapter 22 of his seminal book Thought Reform and the
Psychology of Totalism.
I hope that reading and thinking about these perspectives will help to shed
light on the behaviors of individuals and organizations. (Additionally, you
might want to read a copy of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human
Unless we all acknowledge our questions now, they will remain like skeletons
in our psyches until the day they are dealt with and resolved. They will never
go away permanently, even if we do years of chanting, praying, affirmations,
and other spiritual practices. We must use wisdom, gentleness, self inquiry,
and courage to guide us in upholding our integrity.
Unselfishness, kindness, gentleness, and compassion should be a basic living
principle, not just an ideal. When individuals claim to be spiritually more
developed, and put themselves in the role of guru, swami, master, prophet,
these virtues must be consistently demonstrated. We must not allow our desires
to know "Absolute Truth" to blind us from observing obvious discrepancies
in our teacher's behaviors. We must become sensitive to the tactic that illigitimate
leaders use by turning our questions or comments around and using them blame
or shame us into obedience. A legitimate question or concern demands a respectful
response, not evasion or coersion.
We must also not look at the past and traditions blindly, but with an appreciation
for the present and a clear vision for our future on the spaceship Earth we
Questions to Help the Assessment Process
- Who is the leader?
What are his/her background and qualifications?
Have you relied solely on trust that all of the information you were given
is true or have you done independent investigation?
Do you feel pressure to accept and not question at all?
Is it possible that there are misrepresentations or falsehoods?
Is there external corroboration for extraordinary claims of accomplishment
or are they simply his/her say-so?
If "miracles" have been performed, can they be replicated under
open observation or even under scientific conditions?
Are there other explanations for the "miracles," such as magic
tricks, hypnosis, etc.?
If there is a former leader or member, have you sought him or her out to
hear for yourself critical information? If not, are you afraid to trust
your ability to discern the truthfulness of what you learn?
If you find yourself saying that you don't care if there are major deceptions,
ask yourself if you knew this information before you became involved, would
you have even bothered to make a commitment of time and money?
- Are there exclusive claims made to wisdom, knowledge, love, and truth?
If so, the burden of proof is on the leader to demonstrate his or her superiority,
not on members to disprove it. A truly "developed" spiritual being
exudes love, compassion, and humility. Any person who claims to be "superior"
but does not practice what they preach is of questionable character. There
is never incongruency between words and deeds. A person who uses fear and
phobia indoctrination to control followers demonstrates insecurity and lack
of spiritual maturity.
- Is total submission and obedience required? Any relationship that demands
giving up one's personal integrity and conscience is dangerous and leads
to totalitarianism. Be wary of those who advocate "the ends justify
the means," especially when it clearly serves their own self-interest.
Also, make sure that your desire "to believe" doesn't simply activate
the common psychological defense mechanisms: denial, rationalization, justification,
and wishful thinking. If a doctrine is true or a person is truly spiritually
advanced, they will stand up to the scrutiny of objective evaluation. If
they do not prove themselves, they are probably not worthy of your commitment
- Does he/ she have a criminal record, a legacy of allegations against him/her
or a history of misconduct? If there are allegations of misconduct against
the leader, the responsible follower must seek out the negative information
and the sources of that information to evaluate the truth. If a leader claims
to be celibate and allegations are made that the leader engaged in inappropriate
sex, this is an extreme violation of integrity. It must be investigated
vigorously. It is never appropriate for teachers, therapists, or spiritual
masters to take advantage of a power differential over followers. This is
especially true in the area of sexuality. It is grossly unethical to engage
in sexual relations with someone who has placed their trust in as a teacher/advisor/master.
Many followers are incredibly vulnerable to this and unable to resist sexual
intimacy. Anyone should be able to say "no."
Is he or she a "trust bandit," stealing hearts, souls, minds,
bodies, and pocketbooks for his or her own ends?
- Does the leader demonstrate psychological problems and awareness of their
Does the leader have addictions to power, drugs, alcohol, sex, even television
Does the leader have emotional outbursts?
Does the leader physically abuse followers?
Does the leader drive expensive cars and wear expensive clothes while extolling
the virtues of renunciation?
Does the leader financially exploit followers by expecting them to live
in poverty while he or she indulges in luxury?
Is the group or leader's driveway habitually filled with luxury cars while
ordinary people find him or her inaccessible and unreachable?
Does the leader ever encourage deception or use deception as a "technique"
to trick followers into so-called correct thinking and understanding?
Codependent behavior by a spiritual teacher should be a warning sign of
danger. Codependency includes: obsessively trying to control others; allowing
people to hurt and use them; lack of clear boundaries; being reactive, not
proactive; tunnel visioned; obsessive worrying and denial; expectations
of perfection and suppression of human needs. (Beattie, Beyond Codependency,
- Are questions and doubts permitted within the organization?
A healthy spiritual environment must engage individual followers at
their level of experience and should encourage them to feel and think and
therefore question their beliefs and exercise good decision-making. In this
way, the follower can investigate, discriminate, and test the dogma and
the environment they are being asked to accept, between what his or her
personal issues are and what might be an unhealthy environment. If intense
pressure is used to dissuade people who wish to talk with former members
or critics, it is a clear sign of information control. Controlling information
is one of the most essential components of mind control.
- Is the organization open or closed?
Are there organizational secrets?
Are there "in" groups and "out" groups?
Are there restricted teachings for initiates only?
Are there secret texts and publications "for your eyes only"?
Is there real financial accountability?
If a group says that you can look at its accounting records, does it actually
The only way to know is to ask to see the records. If you are afraid to
ask, what does this say about the atmosphere of the group?
- What structural checks and balances exist within the organization to prevent
abuse of power?
Are there divisive sectarian biases, even in the name of interdenominational
ecumenicism and universality?
Is there an independent "ethics"committee to challenge and change
policies of the group?
If there are abuses or injustices, what structure exists to correct them?
Can anyone legitimately question the actions of the leader without threat
of emotional withdraw or fear of expulsion to "hell"?
Do the rich and powerful get preferential treatment?
Are "indulgences" (spiritual pardons) sold?
Is there a "code of silence" against unethical behavior of leaders?
Mind Control - The BITE Model
From chapter two of Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People
to Think for Themselves*
*© 2000 by Steven Hassan; published by Freedom of Mind
Press, Somerville MA
Destructive mind control can be understood in terms of four
basic components, which form the acronym BITE:
It is important to understand that destructive mind control
can be determined when the overall effect of these four components promotes
dependency and obedience to some leader or cause. It is not necessary for
every single item on the list to be present. Mind controlled cult members
can live in their own apartments, have nine-to-five jobs, be married with
children, and still be unable to think for themselves and act independently.
1. Regulation of individual's physical reality
a. Where, how and with whom the member lives and associates with
b. What clothes, colors, hairstyles the person wears
c. What food the person eats, drinks, adopts, and rejects
d. How much sleep the person is able to have
e. Financial dependence
f. Little or no time spent on leisure, entertainment, vacations
2. Major time commitment required for indoctrination sessions and group rituals
3. Need to ask permission for major decisions
4. Need to report thoughts, feelings and activities to superiors
5. Rewards and punishments (behavior modification techniques- positive and
6. Individualism discouraged; group think prevails
7. Rigid rules and regulations
8. Need for obedience and dependency
1. Use of deception
a. Deliberately holding back information
b. Distorting information to make it acceptable
c. Outright lying
2. Access to non-cult sources of information minimized or discouraged
a. Books, articles, newspapers, magazines, TV, radio
b. Critical information
c. Former members
d. Keep members so busy they don't have time to think
3. Compartmentalization of information; Outsider vs. Insider doctrines
a. Information is not freely accessible
b. Information varies at different levels and missions within pyramid
c. Leadership decides who "needs to know" what
4. Spying on other members is encouraged
a. Pairing up with "buddy" system to monitor and control
b. Reporting deviant thoughts, feelings, and actions to leadership
5. Extensive use of cult generated information and propaganda
a. Newsletters, magazines, journals, audio tapes, videotapes, etc.
b. Misquotations, statements taken out of context from non-cult sources
6. Unethical use of confession
a. Information about "sins" used to abolish identity boundaries
b. Past "sins" used to manipulate and control; no forgiveness
1. Need to internalize the group's doctrine as "Truth"
a. Map = Reality
b. Black and White thinking
c. Good vs. evil
d. Us vs. them (inside vs. outside)
2. Adopt "loaded" language (characterized by "thought-terminating
clichés"). Words are the tools we use to think with. These "special"
words constrict rather than expand understanding. They function to reduce
complexities of experience into trite, platitudinous "buzz words".
3. Only "good" and "proper" thoughts are encouraged.
4. Thought-stopping techniques (to shut down "reality testing"
by stopping "negative" thoughts and allowing only "good"
thoughts); rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking, constructive
a. Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking
e. Speaking in "tongues"
f. Singing or humming
5. No critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy seen as legitimate
6. No alternative belief systems viewed as legitimate, good, or useful
1. Manipulate and narrow the range of a person's feelings.
2. Make the person feel like if there are ever any problems it is always
their fault, never the leader's or the group's.
3. Excessive use of guilt
a. Identity guilt
1. Who you are (not living up to your potential)
2. Your family
3. Your past
4. Your affiliations
5. Your thoughts, feelings, actions
b. Social guilt
c. Historical guilt
4. Excessive use of fear
a. Fear of thinking independently
b. Fear of the "outside" world
c. Fear of enemies
d. Fear of losing one's "salvation"
e. Fear of leaving the group or being shunned by group
f. Fear of disapproval
5. Extremes of emotional highs and lows.
6. Ritual and often public confession of "sins".
7. Phobia indoctrination : programming of irrational fears of ever leaving
the group or even questioning the leader's authority. The person under mind
control cannot visualize a positive, fulfilled future without being in the
a. No happiness or fulfillment "outside"of the group
b. Terrible consequences will take place if you leave: "hell";
"demon possession"; "incurable diseases"; "accidents";
"suicide"; "insanity"; "10,000 reincarnations";
c. Shunning of leave takers. Fear of being rejected by friends, peers, and
d. Never a legitimate reason to leave. From the group's perspective, people
who leave are: "weak"; "undisciplined"; "unspiritual";
"worldly"; "brainwashed by family, counselors"; seduced
by money, sex, rock and roll.
The Three Stages of Gaining Control of the Mind
[Adapted from Kurt Lewin's three-stage model as described in Coercive
Persuasion (Norton, 1961) by Edgar Schein]
a. Disorientation / confusion
b. Sensory deprivation and/or sensory overload
c. Physiological manipulation
1. Age regression
3. Story-telling and metaphors
4. Linguistic double binds, use of suggestion
5. Meditation, chanting, praying, singing
e. Get person to question self identity
f. Redefine individual's past (implant false memories, forget positive memories
of the past)
a. Creation and imposition of new "identity" done step by step
1. Formally within indoctrination sessions
2. Informally by members, tapes, books, etc.
b. Use of Behavior Modification techniques
c. Mystical manipulation
d. Use of hypnosis and other mind-altering techniques
1. Repetition, monotony, rhythm
2. Excessive chanting, praying, decreeing, visualizations
e. Use of confession and testimonials
a. New identity reinforced, old identity surrendered
1. Separate from the past; decrease contact or cut off friends and family
2. Give up meaningful possessions and donate assets
3. Start doing cult activities: recruit, fundraise, move in with members
b. New name, new clothing, new hairstyle, new language, new "family"
c. Pairing up with new role models, buddy system
d. Indoctrination continues: Workshops, retreats, seminars, individual studies,
Remember,cult mind control does not erase the person's old identity, but
rather creates a new one to suppress the old identity (John-John and John-cult).
Lifton's Thought Reform Model
Adapted from Robert Jay Lifton's Thought
Reform and the Psychology of Totalism
(Norton, 1961: reprinted 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press)
Dr. Lifton's work was the outgrowth of his studies for military intelligence
of Mao Tse-Tung's "thought-reform programs" commonly known as "brainwashing."
In Chapter 22, Lifton outlines eight criteria for when any environment can
be understood as exercising "thought-reform" or mind control. Lifton
wrote that any group has some aspects of these points. However, if an environment
has all eight of these points and implements them in the extreme, then there
is unhealthy thought reform taking place.
1. Milieu Control
Environment control and the control of human communication. Not just communication
between people but communication within people's minds to themselves.
2. Mystical Manipulation
Everyone is manipulating everyone, under the belief that it advances the
"ultimate purpose." Experiences are engineered to appear to be
spontaneous, when, in fact, they are contrived to have a deliberate effect.
People misattribute their experiences to spiritual causes when, in fact,
they are concocted by human beings.
3. Loading the Language
Controlling words help to control people's thoughts. A totalist group uses
totalist language to make reality compressed into black or white-"thought-terminating
clichés." Non-members cannot simply understand what believers
are talking about. The words constrict rather than expand human understanding.
4. Doctrine Over Person
No matter what a person experiences, it is the belief of the dogma which
is important. Group belief supersedes conscience and integrity.
5. The Sacred Science
The group's belief is that their dogma is absolutely scientific and morally
true. No alternative viewpoint is allowed. No questions of the dogma are
6. The Cult of Confession
The environment demands that personal boundaries are destroyed and that
every thought, feeling, or action that does not conform with the group's
rules be confessed; little or no privacy.
7. The Demand for Purity
The creation of a guilt and shame milieu by holding up standards of perfection
that no human being can accomplish. People are punished and learn to punish
themselves for not living up to the group's ideals.
8. The Dispensing of Existence
The group decides who has a right to exist and does not. There is no other
legitimate alternative to the group. In political regimes, this permits
Hopefully, this summary will motivate you to read the entire Chapter 22,
if not the entire book. It is considered to be one of the most important descriptions
of political mind-control programs. It is also important to note, that now
there are 3rd, 4th, and 5th generation mind-control groups and the patterns
have evolved and become more refined and sophisticated.
This booklet was prepared by Steven Hassan with Lama Surya Das. If you wish
to contact us regarding counseling, workshops, or seminars, please do so at:
PO Box 45223
Somerville, MA 02145
Telephone: (617) 628-9918
Fax: (617) 628-8153
The Freedom of Mind Resource Center is at
About Steven Hassan and Lama Surya Das
Steven Hassan is one of America's leading cult counselors, employing the
Strategic Interaction Approach to help people leave destructive groups. He
has been involved in educating the public about destructive cults in America
for over nineteen years. He is a licensed mental health counselor and holds
a Master's degree in counseling psychology from Cambridge College. In 2000,
his acclaimed book Releasing the Bonds: Empowering
People to Think for Themselves was published by Freedom of Mind Press.
It is also available in Polish, Russian, and Chinese with other language texts
being prepared. Stevenhas appeared on virtually every major news program in
America, including "60 Minutes" and "Nightline."
Lama Surya Das is an American meditation teacher, poet, Buddhist scholar,
translator, and social activist. He is the author of The
Snow Lion's Turquoise Mane: Wisdom Tales From Tibet (Harper San Francisco,
1992) and is editor/translator of Natural
Great Perfection by Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche (Snow Lion Publications,
1995). Founder of the Dzogchen Foundation, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
he conducts meditation retreats worldwide and organizes the Western Buddhist
Meditation Teachers Conference with the Dalai Lama