Inducing a trance state
I believe that the ten minute breathing meditation at the beginning of the class would be mostly harmless on its own (if an individual is not suffering with acute trauma). However, what makes the mindfulness of breath practice dangerous in this context is that it is used to ‘settle the mind’ before the contemplation to make the person’s mind more susceptible to the teachings. Putting people into a more relaxed state makes them more easy to influence. For those who find the prayer beautiful and experience a blissful feeling in the shrine room, they can enter a trance like state, where they may also be experiencing a feeling of awe towards the teacher and teachings. The NKT describe this feeling as ‘receiving blessings’. According to the Cult Information Centre
website trance states are one of the main methods of mind control used by cults.
Is it meditation or hypnosis?
Although the NKT are certain that they are practicing and teaching meditation, it could be argued that their contemplation meditation practices could be more accurately defined as hypnosis. During the contemplation meditation you are told to focus on an intention to think a certain thing and/or feel a certain way. You are encouraged to reduce this intellectual process into a ‘feeling’ and to concentrate on that, and not allow your attention to
wander away from this ‘object of your concentration’. According to Lazarus (2013) hypnosis is ‘a state of highly focused attention or concentration, often associated with relaxation, and heightened suggestibility’. Neil Elliot’s teacher training notes state ‘For us meditation is a creative constructive process of changing our thoughts, our feelings, our attitudes; and carrying these changes into our daily life’.
The most effective way of controlling people is to convince them that they are in fact, choosing to be in control over their own minds. According to an ex-cult member ‘A cult promotes its cultish belief system, and then believers control their own minds, as they train their minds and reform their personalities, in accordance with the tenets of their cultish new belief system’. (Dunlop, 2018). The belief system of the cult is of course then used to recruit you as a volunteer, which is framed as a method for ‘gaining merit’ so that you can achieve enlightenment.
It is suggested by teachers and long term members that you probably just aren’t ready to accept the more profound teachings yet, and you might be ready later, thus suggesting that they are precious, correct, and you are still holding an incorrect view. Therefore although no one directly forces you to attend more advanced teachings or to accept their views, you are heavily influenced to do so.
‘Cults do not gain influence over their members by overcoming their free will. They gain influence through promoting a belief system which undermines members’
confidence in their own judgement, or more specifically in the judgement of their
unreformed old self, so that they lack the confidence to make decisions for
themselves, independently of guidance from the groups teachers and preceptors.’
(The Culture of Cults). Given that NKT teachings centre around controlling your mind, I would argue that you are indoctrinated into believing the importance of mind control whilst under the influence of mind control.
Quotes from Gyatso’s books are written in large font placed around the buildings, meaning that people who frequently attend and live in the centres are also being influenced by these messages. Despite being a psychologist, and an atheist, and working full time outside of the centre, I am now shocked at the extent that I came to believe some of the teachings and to act accordingly. It is now clear to me that through the combination of attending the teachings and spending time with those who were practicing, I had in fact taken on more of the belief
system than I originally intended. After attending a festival and focusing intensely on my intention to benefit all living beings, I signed up to several training courses which I could not then follow through. It is clear to me now that I was actually experiencing fervor, mania,
and the effects of hypnotism, however I believed I was acting in accordance with wisdom and compassion. I came to believe that it was my duty to work for the centre in order to help it flourish, on top of my full time job in a highly challenging role as a psychologist for people with severe eating disorders. I did not realise, that I had developed a messiah/martyr
complex and was heading for severe burnout. Many ex-members report this feeling of having been hypnotised into taking on these beliefs and acting in accordance. I also was told by several members that they experienced mania following festivals, but they described it as their mind being extra ‘blessed’.
Survivors of the NKT and other similar traditions and movements have reported that their attempts to explain the mind control elements to outsiders, researchers and mental health practitioners have failed, and they are met with disbelief (Dunlop, 2018 ‘Why cults are so
difficult to oppose’). Robert Jay Lifton, professor of psychiatry at Yale University Medical School, said that many in the psychological professions may not be aware of, or deny the existence of, clinical difficulties posed by cults. ‘There is a widespread misunderstanding of the phenomenon of persuasion that can bring about intense change in people,‘ he said. ‘Consciously and manipulatively,’ said Dr. Singer, professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, ‘cult leaders and their trainers exert a systematic social influence that can produce great behavioral changes.’ Dr. Singer explained that such groups ‘have
taken techniques from the human-potential movement, from the encounter, sensitivity training and humanistic-psychology movements, and combined them with cult ideology and persuasive sales methods – and packaged them in various combinations.’ Dr. Clark is one of the founders of the Boston Personal Development Institute, a nonprofit group that treats former cult members and advises their families. Dr. Clark told The New York Times that the pattern of manipulated cult conversions may not appear especially radical to outsiders, since no one is beaten or otherwise physically harmed. ‘But hundreds of ex-cult members and their families have attested to the enticement practices of these groups,‘ he said. ‘Under the force of the conversion experience, people disappeared from their families and changed, sometimes after only a few days.’ (Collins, 1982).
For a full description of Liftons eight criteria of thought reform by The Open Minds Foundation, click here. A brief description of how the NKT reform members thoughts is below.
Milieu control: TV is discouraged and banned from NKT centres. Too much time spent with outsiders with ‘ordinary’ minds is also discouraged.
Loading the language: The NKT have their own language for describing the mind and the nature of reality. The member is indoctrinated into believing that this is THE truth. According to Lifton this puts pressure on a newcomer to learn this language in order to progress. The main word used by the NKT is ‘delusion’. This refers to any state of mind which is negative or not ‘virtuous’.
Mystical manipulation: Feelings of awe are seen as evidence that Kelsang Gyatso must be an enlightened being who is omniscient. Doubts are seen as non virtuous to be purified.
Sacred Science: Despite Buddha apparently originally stating that you should not take anything as truth without investigating it, many within the NKT can be heard stating ‘Gesh-la says it so it must be true’. Questioning is often met with the suggestion you simply need to develop more faith or virtuous karma.
Demand for purity: Striving to hold pure virtuous thoughts in your concentration at all times and purifying your negative karma are the central practices.
Confession: Confessing past wrongs and purifying negative karma through prayer and generous deeds are seen as methods for creating spiritual merit.
Doctrine over person: Your perceptions and observations are now considered incorrect, whilst the teachings holds the truth regarding reality. This makes the chances of gaslighting by other members high. You can never win an argument that your perception might be correct if someone is abusing you for example.
Dispensing of existence: ‘Ultimate Truth’ (Kadam Dharma) and the spreading of it around the world is considered more important than the individual (or their existence). Emptiness teachings are used to suggest that people and all phenomena ‘do not exist at all’.