Dear reader

Why do I write about pitfalls of spirituality?

My purpose with this blog is to crystallize and share my thoughts and experiences, in the hope that you and I may benefit from them. From 1993-2005 I practiced a so-called spiritual method (Sahaj Marg). Ultimately I realized that this method - and especially the organization around it (Shri Ram Chandra Mission or SRCM)- was contrary to some deep spiritual layer in myself. I came to some clear conclusions, and also to some still developing insights.

One still developing insight is that almost everybody is looking for some form of spirituality in their life. Therefore there are many spiritual methods and movements, often with similar pitfalls to the ones I experienced.

Many people follow a well-trodden path which is defined by the group in their immediate vicinity. Others are prompted by their heart and/or head to look for spirituality that makes sense on a personal level. Spirituality gives fulfillment -humanity as one, universal love growing, one with the buddha- as well as direction through life's tough questions.

I write about the pitfalls of spirituality because so many others seem to write mostly about the bliss of their own approach to spirituality. This bliss to me actually seems a pitfall.

Understanding the pitfalls I deem essential to gain more spiritual insight. For me this actually translates into a lighter and more loving heart. I do not believe that understanding is the key issue in spirituality. But I do believe that misunderstanding can block key issues (although to which degree probably varies with each person).

Please bear with my frequent use of I feel, seems to me, in my not so humble opinion and so on. It is to emphasize that I do not consider any of my opinions to be more than that. I cannot bring you universal truth. In my not so humble opinion [imnsho] universal truth is a major pitfall in spirituality.

Dear reader, I hope you find something worthwhile on these pages. Friendly reactions, which may be as critical as you like, are always welcome.

Tips how to read this blog

* Please start with the closing remarks (click on the link), they should provide a balanced perspective on this blog.

* There is a list of 20 pitfalls in the sidebar. Clicking on a pitfall will provide a number of posts in which that pitfall is discussed to some extent.

* If you have time, consider starting with the oldest post, and simply going through to each next post. This probably gives the most faithful ;-) reading...
Showing posts sorted by date for query "cognitive dissonance". Sort by relevance Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by date for query "cognitive dissonance". Sort by relevance Show all posts

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cognitive dissonance 7: boundary control (end of thread)

So let's finish with the three yet-undiscussed elements of boundary control that I perceive to be used often in spiritual movements by their Inner Circle:

2) Limiting contact with `outside' world views
3) Blackening of former followers
6) Limiting free discussion between members, that is discussion which is not in some way controlled or influenced by Inner Circle orthodoxy.

(the other elements being:
1) Intensive recruiting of new followers (see previous post)
4) Partial truth & secrets (already discussed intensively in earlier posts)
5) Stressing the need to forego rationality (likewise already discussed))


ad 2): There are various ways for the Inner Circle of a spiritual movement to limit contact of the followers with the broader societal views. Clearly, physical separation is frequently seen, by creating communes and the like. But Marc Galanter's book gives several examples which are more subtle. From my own experience with Sahaj Marg, I remember that various law suits in which SRCM is involved are being kept largely from the followers. As well as the fact that there are sizable dissenting factions which claim (with more than passing credibility) that the guru-succession in SRCM on the death of its founder has been a vicious power struggle involving decidedly unspiritual manipulation. This is perhaps also a case of 4): Partial truth and secrets.

Anyway, the reason for limiting contact with `outside' world views and conflicting information is obvious, as Marc Galanter points out. For a charismatic group to maintain its group identity and group rationale, cognitive dissonance should not become too big. Certain anomalies and contradictions -between the Theory on the one hand and on the other hand the worldly activities of the Movement plus the possible worldly opposition against the Movement- are most easily managed if the followers are largely unaware of their existence.


The motives behind 3) and 6) are of course completely similar. In Sahaj Marg, followers are repeatedly asked by guru P. Rajagopalachari not to create discussion forums on internet, with the reason given that these forums could be targeted by `malicious' individuals (looking to harm SRCM specifically). This of course holds for any discussion forum on the internet. Generally, the pros of a discussion forum outweigh the cons, especially if one takes some simple measures against `trolling'. Therefore, a more likely reason to prohibit these forums is that they are uncontrollable by the Inner Circle, and thus prone to becoming a source of cognitive dissonance. Discussions on whether it is `spiritual' to ask €250 for a book of which the guru says that it is essential for your spiritual progress, for instance...

The internet therefore poses a real problem for Inner Circles wishing to exercise boundary control.

Because most spiritual movements have their own publisher's media, such as newsletters, quarterly journals, videos, cd's, books etc. These media are in many if not most cases under rigourous guidelines/supervision by the Inner Circle. Typically therefore, one encounters in say a quarterly journal -say Truth at Home or something similar- lots of positive feedback from both Inner Circle and `ordinary' followers. Truth at Home, like the other publications, so likely becomes an active instrument of the Inner Circle to reinforce the Message. Critical letters, `bad' news, accounting figures, property holdings, etc...are simply not published.

But the internet today is easily accessible to all followers. It cannot be controlled by the Inner Circle, yet it also yields results about relatively unimportant and obscure groups - in contrast with the traditional media (books, television, radio, newspapers). So therefore, it can also contain specific criticism against their Movement, small though it may be. Criticism which the Inner Circle cannot edit out or block from reaching followers.

This criticism is often the most threatening -like stated in one of the earlier posts on cognitive dissonance- when it comes from (longtime) former followers. Because they are really in the know, and their arguments are often not so easy to dismiss as the more uninformed criticism coming from general society. Often their arguments point out the fundamental internal inconsistencies in the Movement. (And then, what happens with the child who repeatedly sees different Santas? Who comes across a Santa whose beard accidentally falls off? Who sees Santa drunk, who sees parents sneaking in with presents, ...).

One way for the Inner Circle to deal with this particular `former follower' threat is to blacken their character and motives. (Yes, this occurs in all types of organizations, I know. One just would expect this not to happen in a spiritual organization...). As an example, I have been called an `enemy of spirituality' by my former guru P. Rajagopalachari ;-) And with me, all former followers who blog about their experiences with Sahaj Marg. It's funny enough, but I'm not kidding. Still I can't possibly take it very seriously, for me personally I mean.

It does beg the question what part of the boundary control is conscious and what part un- or subconscious. Personally, I'm inclined to believe in `good' intentions of most people. This would imply that many Inner Circles have a high level of cognitive dissonance and corresponding avoidance. Indeed Marc Galanter describes this to be very often the case, complete with delusional world views and self-aggrandizement / overimportance / self-proclamation of divinity (direct or indirect) etc.

One should not forget that it often takes decades for Inner Circle members to attain their Inner Circle position. Time enough to build up a significant cognitive dissonance avoidance. Also, by the nature of the enormous time & effort investment made, if their position and/or their rationale is threatened one should not be surprised to see them react in what I would deem rather unspiritual ways.

Dear reader, to me it seems none of us are free from these mechanisms. But for me, having been at the receiving end of such unspiritual reaction, it has been a great help to analyze the possible motives. This analysis gives me a fresh perspective, and also allows for understanding and forgiveness, on the personal individual level.

Then, if all is peace and love now ;-), you might wonder why I still find it necessary to write on this blog from time to time. The answer is still the same simple one that I started out with: it helps me to analyze my experiences, feelings and thoughts, and I find it likely that some other people can benefit from this analysis also.

Still, I think it will be quiet on this blog for some time to come, since this particular pitfall (cognitive dissonance avoidance & boundary control) has had enough attention, I believe.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cognitive dissonance 6: boundary control & Santa Claus

Since I'm stuck inside with swine flu (pandemic H1N1/09 officially), why not continue the thread on cognitive dissonance?

Still, the following example of boundary control might strike you as ... childish. Consider the common practice of Santa Claus. Most young children in the western world are made to believe that this fairytale figure really exists, and brings them presents around Christmas...provided they've been `good'.

To maintain this elaborate charade, adults and older children lie and cheat. Even the television and other media play along. Still, for any child, inevitably the cognitive dissonance of the situation grows to a point where it can no longer be avoided. Sometimes the child finds out for her/himself, sometimes the child is told by others that Santa is in fact a deception. (This can be a disturbing experience, although to many it seems relatively harmless.)

But until that moment, the parents (mostly) try to control what information about Santa is available to the child. By keeping secret that they are the ones buying the presents, by asking others to keep silent about the charade, etc. etc.

This conscious effort to shield the members of a group from `outside' views and information is part of what I would call `boundary control'. Also part of it are the attempts to explain away inconsistencies, to cover up contradictory activities, to limit interaction with `outsiders'/`unbelievers'/..., etcetera.


Anyway, it might surprise you that children already have complex motives and mechanisms for avoiding the cognitive dissonance arising from the Santa Claus deception. Be it consciously or not, it turns out that many doubting children are afraid that if they stop believing in Santa Claus, then there will be no more presents and no more fun-time at Christmas.


But that is not the main issue for this post. We were discussing the Inner Circle of a Spiritual Movement, and its possible conscious efforts to control the doubts and misgivings of the followers of the Movement. In my not so humble opinion, for many if not most spiritual movements (religions included) these doubts and misgivings are often well-founded (see also the list of pitfalls in the sidebar of this blog).

Especially charismatic groups cannot function when there is too much visible doubt in the followers or a clear contradiction in the Theory and/or the practice of the Leader/Inner Circle.

So let's discuss some of the common forms of boundary control that Inner Circles use:

1) Intensive recruiting of new followers
2) Limiting contact with `outside' world views
3) Blackening of former followers
4) Partial truth & secrets (but this was already discussed intensively in previous posts)
5) Stressing the need to forego rationality (likewise already discussed in previous posts)
6) Limiting free discussion between members, that is discussion which is not in some way controlled or influenced by Inner Circle orthodoxy.


Ad 1): a for me striking insight from Galanter's book was his observation, that intensive recruiting of new followers is a conscious instrument used by many charismatic groups to control the cognitive dissonance of existing followers.

The mechanism behind this is obvious, once you think about it. In order for a Universal Truth theory to make sense, it must be universally recognizable...If the Theory promises that out of the Movement shall come a New World Order, then it is rather disheartening if after 50 years of intensive proselytization still only one in 50,000 (say) has been attracted to this Truth.

So new followers are a boost to the rationality of the whole Movement. `See, what we say makes sense, because how would we attract new people otherwise?'. This mechanism is frequently used by the Inner Circle (I have seen this in my own former spiritual movement Sahaj Marg) in the following way:

* The number of followers is reported as much higher than it is in reality.
* `Senior' followers are exhorted to devote time and energy to spreading the Message
* Growth in numbers is seen as very important and duly rewarded
* Decline in numbers is frowned upon, and often blamed on inadequate conduct of members - the attractivity of the Theory is not to be questioned. Members are expected to be shining examples, thereby attracting family and friends.


To be continued with 2) 3) and 6) from the above list.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Charismatic groups (intermezzo)

Once one starts looking for information and studies regarding spiritual movements, there seems to be a vast amount of research and descriptions of experiences. So much so, that I wonder once again if this blog has anything substantial to add.

But then again, it won't hurt either to look at these things from a personal perspective of a former follower of a `charismatic group'. Marc Galanter starts out his book with a description and very short definition of this term:

A charismatic group is characterized by the following:

1) Members have a shared belief system
2) Members sustain a high level of social cohesion
3) Members are strongly influenced by the group's behavioural norms
4) Members ascribe charismatic (or sometimes divine) power to the group or its leadership

Notice that these traits can hold also for non-spiritually-oriented groups. Also notice that for the large religions, most of these traits are watered down due to the large numbers and the diversity of the followers. Which is why the large religions are usually not considered charismatic groups, although they all count various much smaller submovements/subgroups which can be very charismatic.


For the purpose of this blog, it might once again be helpful to list some characteristics of charismatic spiritual groups that I have seen in many descriptions:

a) Gradual introduction/conversion of new members, usually through personal contact, in a family-like setting. Repeated enhancement of the `family' feeling through spiritual gatherings and other activities, often involving an ashram or other facility where communal living is the norm.

b) One's own physical/spiritual well-being is linked to a higher noble spiritual Goal (`Meditate, and you will feel better. But also you will help uniting Humanity, and bring about a world where love is the predominant guiding principle.')

c) Some special practice, usually involving some state of altered consciousness. Very frequently this includes some form of meditation. The experiences with and results of this `special' practice are discussed among members, and good things are associated with it. The specialty is stressed from time to time: `other movements do not have this Method' (exclusiveness).

d) A Special Leader, who has a direct Divine connection. His Guidance and Helping Hand are mystic and beyond rational understanding. `Surrender' is the way for a follower to achieve spiritual progress.

e) A strong behavioural code, together with a lot of `positive' groupthink. Occasional criticism might be possible, but is made relatively light of. Fundamental criticism of the Leader or the Movement is frowned upon. Positive `witnessing' is encouraged and rewarded [witnessing: relating one's experiences with the Method/Leader and one's resulting insights; `So when I was having a real difficult time in my life, the image of the Leader appeared when I was doing my Morning Prayer. He spoke to me and said: `Be strong, and do not listen to your Ego. Let God do His work on you, do your Practice and have Faith'. So I decided to go to satsangh regularly, and my other problems became lighter!'].

f) An Inner Circle of long-practicing members, who are close to the Leader. Positions in this Inner Circle are coveted, as a sure sign of spiritual progress and the elevated opportunity for direct Guidance from the Leader. Management of the Movement's Organization is organized hierarchically, with the Inner Circle at the top of the Pyramid.

Dear reader, if much of the above looks familiar to a movement that you participate(d) in, then it might interest you to know that from many many studies it has been assessed that in such charismatic groups the risks of manipulation and power abuse are manifold.


One thing which strikes me particularly is the element (c) above: the special practice. Often it is some form of meditation (prayer, chanting) which can both be done individually and in a group.

The altered state of consciousness arising from meditation is well-documented, even scientifically. Generally, mental health benefits are associated with many forms of meditation (that doesn't mean that all forms of meditation are beneficial to everyone, and like stated in this previous post on spiritual energy the human brain is still largely uncharted territory). Many charismatic groups however claim these benefits as being uniquely due to their Method.

But more importantly, the altered state of consciousness is often used to `prove' the Leader's specialness (and the Movement's specialness) and to underscore the need to let go of rationality. Therefore the `transcendental' experiences are often used to manage the cognitive dissonance which can arise out of internal contradictions of the Movement/Theory/Inner-Circle-Behaviour.

A frequently occurring advice when followers are experiencing doubts and start asking critical questions: `Meditate more. Don't try to understand with the mind. You must feel what is right. Especially since God cannot be found with the mind, but only through the heart.'...or something similar.

(to be continued with the thread on `Cognitive dissonance and boundary control')

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Cognitive dissonance 5: boundary control and Inner Circle

Continued from the previous post, which ended with:
This forming of some kind of `family feeling' is very common in spiritual movements, religious groups included. What Marc Galanter describes as boundary issues, concerns the interaction between that `family' and the rest of society.

On rereading, it appears that Galanter only uses the term `boundary control'. I'm glad however to have used `boundary issues' previously, since I associate boundary control more specifically with conscious management of the boundary issues. Galanter uses a systems-theoretical approach for charismatic groups; for him `control' can be brought about in and by a group on the human subconscious level also [an interesting and valid approach, I believe. I will come back to the term `charismatic group'].


Anyway. To resume: the vast majority of spiritual movements (religions included) make a marked distinction between followers and non-followers. In my not so humble opinion this already casts a strange light on any claim by such movement that uniting humanity is one of their goals. Yet such or similar claims are very common to these spiritual movements. This is just one example of cognitive dissonance avoidance, but I repeat it because I believe it to be a telling example.

Telling in the sense that the need for some `separate' group structure is so strong, that the resulting logical contradiction between goal (`uniting humanity') and behaviour (dividing humanity) is blocked from perception - cognitive dissonance avoidance.

Why does the need to form a `separate group' arise? It is precisely to maintain a certain set of beliefs, in the face of a surrounding society which challenges these beliefs. And the more the movement's beliefs differ from what general society holds as normal, the stronger the need for reinforcement of the movement's beliefs through a close-group mechanism.

And even stronger, when the movement's beliefs start becoming self-contradictory or unlikely to the point of self-delusion. Because then, even a relatively neutral outsider can point out: `but the Emperor is naked!'.


So, it is in this light that I would like to discuss `boundary control'.

And let me start with a perhaps unexpected example from history. One would say that Christianity is supposed to be a spiritual movement centered around the love for humanity. So how would it strike you if a high and undisputed Church authority would pass the death penalty on the complete population of the Netherlands, with the expectation of it being carried out as well?

It simply beggars belief, yet it is exactly what took place on 16 February, 1568. The Inquisition condemned the entire populace of the Netherlands (around 3 million people at that time I believe) to death, and king Philip II of Spain was all set to have it carried out too. Why? Well, simply put, the Dutch were heretic. They had taken it in their convoluted minds that Catholicism was wrong, and that Protestantism was a better way of looking at Christianity.


The extreme example above is meant to show to what lengths the Inner Circle of a spiritual movement can be willing to go to protect the Movement. Lutheranism and Calvinism were seriously threatening the Catholic Church's stranglehold on Europe. (And there was a good reason for this: the inner contradictions of Catholicism had become too large, and increasingly impossible to ignore.)

In this series on cognitive dissonance avoidance, this is a natural point to mark my difference in looking at individual followers (often kind, loving, concerned people) and the Inner Circle (also individually often kind etc, but somehow so strongly in the grip of maintaining power/control and preserving the Movement that they are willing to twist even the most basic principles of their own Theory to achieve their control and preservation goals).

As you can guess, I tend to look on many individual cognitive dissonance situations as being relatively equal from different positions. We all suffer from cognitive dissonance avoidance, I believe. Does any one of us know even in the slightest what this Universe is all about? [OK, I know a majority of people might answer yes to this...but I mean: really?]

But I have great difficulty accepting the manipulation schemes which many Inner Circles in Spiritual Movements (religions included) employ to control their followers, and to protect their boundary as a group.

(to be continued, with examples)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cognitive dissonance 4: former followers & boundary mechanisms

Let's continue with discussing possible answers to the second and third question from the previous post, which I repeat here for readability:

2) How can the avoidance of cognitive dissonance lead to communication problems between followers of a spiritual movement and non-followers?

3) How, personally, can one recognize one's own avoidance of cognitive dissonance, and how that of others? And how to deal with it?


So with regard to question 2, I think it is relevant to note that the body-of-thoughts-and-beliefs of dedicated followers of a particular spiritual movement is often quite different than the body-of-thoughts-and-beliefs of non-followers. And like I said in the previous post, for both sides the problem in communication can lie in the fact that what is logical to the one, is contradictory to the other.

If we forget about most established religions for a moment -in most established religions, children are brought up in the religion also-, then strikingly, many followers of newer spiritual movements joined their movement later in life, most likely as an adult, after having first experienced an existence as `normal' non-follower of that movement. Often it is precisely some more-or-less articulated disappointment with that `normal' society which brings them to try out participation in their spiritual movement.

This `disappointment' can well be formulated in terms like `spiritual longing', for reasons explained in the previous post. As opposed to the `normal' materialistic or ritualistic/orthodox approaches to life.

However, most non-followers have not experienced an existence as follower. To me it often seems that they underestimate the benefits of following, and they overestimate the `normal' society -in which we have human neglect, abuse, violence, depravity, isolation, greed, power hunger etc... thankfully with many exceptions, but still dominant enough to shape the world in a seldom peaceful and respectful way. Is it surprising that many followers of a spiritual movement often dismiss the arguments against following from non-followers? It is in a sense less surprising, I believe, than that many non-followers often dismiss the arguments fór following from followers...;-)

There is however an interesting group of non-followers whose arguments cannot be so easily dismissed by followers: the former followers, especially those who participated for quite some time. People who know the Movement well, who know the Theory, the Practice, the Pyramid, the Inner Circle and the Leader. And who of course also know quite some followers on a personal basis. Probably or possibly there are some other non-followers who are well-informed, well-experienced, and well-connected to followers. For brevity's sake consider them included when the term `former followers' is used.


So, it is my personal experience that it is easier for followers to completely avoid talking with me about most things related to the Movement (in my case Sahaj Marg), but especially on the subject of why I decided to stop with it.

Although surprising to me, and initially not pleasant, I found this blanket of silence illuminating. I now think that followers whom I really care for, and who vice versa care for me, see no other way to reconcile the different positions than by adapting the position that I'm an OK person, but am deluded by the foils of my ego. They find it painful to be confronted by the use of my inside knowledge to bring out the discrepancies between the Theory of the Movement and the daily state of affairs. My bringing out the discrepancies causes them to experience cognitive dissonance, precisely because what I have to say in that respect makes too much sense to be easily dismissed.

And so I have learned to see this silence as a sign of their caring for me, which I appreciate. Still, I would of course like more to be able to discuss things out in the open. Perhaps I would learn about my own ego foils then too - no doubt they exist, and are seen sharply by the people who know me best.


This gives us a straight lead to question 3: How, personally, can one recognize one's own avoidance of cognitive dissonance, and how that of others? And how to deal with it?

Once again I have to say that I do not know anything even close to a complete answer to this question. To recognize my own avoidance of cognitive dissonance, I think both the heart-approach and the mind-approach which I mentioned at the closing of this previous post might sometimes be helpful:

Heart-approach: I think part of the answer lies in `unease'. If I'm experiencing some form of unease for a prolonged period of time, then this could well be an indication that I'm avoiding some insights and some conclusions which would force me to change my belief system. (Accepting this unease for a prolonged period of time might well lead me to a serious form of self-delusion, I believe).

Mind-approach: `face the facts'. Making a factual list of the important issues, I might be able to pierce through the cognitive dissonance avoidance mechanism.

(For me it sometimes helps to make an alternative fact list. By this I mean a list of alternatives to what I perceive as problematic. For example: what if there were more recognized Guides in the Movement, instead of just one Leader? So that a Guide would be truly accessible for all seekers, and there would be far less personal idolatry etc. OK, if this seems better, then why isn't it like that in the Movement? Does not the Theory state that everyone can become a Master, and that the Method is simple and why aren't there more Masters, after all these years?...)


Recognizing the avoidance of cognitive dissonance in others seems so much easier ;-). I recently came across a really funny postcard stating:

Be it my way!

It made me laugh because of its utter simple and yet accurate description of what I consider to be at the root of most of our world's problems.

However, if I think to be wise enough to spot cognitive dissonance avoidance in someone else, perhaps this can help me in changing my strategy for communicating with that other person. Perhaps I might consider finding some other level of communicating than that of rational argumentation. Or perhaps I might just switch to asking some neutral-in-tone questions, not meant per se to convince but more to illustrate my own position. Or perhaps I might want to discuss only simple facts, which can be easily recognized for what they are.

Or, a different strategy which I fear is the most common: avoid the subject altogether...which is however not usually my initial style with people whom I really care for. Still, in my eyes it seldom helps to harden positions and go into verbal battlemode. Changing belief systems is a slow process, at least for me, so probably for others too. Why not give ourselves and each other time?


The above also describes what Marc Galanter calls `boundary issues' (if I remember correctly). Many spiritual movements consider themselves separate from `normal' society in some way (also see the posts on the pitfall Us and Them).

To give an interesting example: in Sahaj Marg participants are encouraged to know all people as thy brethren and treat them as such. This no doubt has helped bring about that participants are used to start talks with words like `dear brothers and sisters'. But also, unconsciously, to bring about that the words `brother(s)' and `sister(s)' are often being used exclusively to indicate other Sahaj Marg participants like in the sentence: `our brothers and sisters in the United States are all very happy that Master is coming to visit'.

Now, to me it seems obviously impossible that all the people in the United States are happy that the Master of Sahaj Marg is coming to visit. So the statement can only be read as to imply that `brothers' and `sisters' are particularly those USA residents who also practice Sahaj Marg. So Sahaj Marg promotes a family feeling among participants (also quite explicitly in speeches and texts), but thereby excluding the rest of humanity, in direct contradiction with their own maxim 6: `Know all people as thy brethren and treat them as such.' In other words: not uniting humanity as is their stated intention, but dividing it. And being blind to the division, I would wager, because it is not out of malice or lack of empathy or lack of concern for others.

This forming of some kind of `family feeling' is very common in spiritual movements, religious groups included. What Marc Galanter describes as boundary issues, concerns the interaction between that `family' and the rest of society.

This will be the focus of the next post, to be continued therefore. Still, I feel that there is not longer much more for me to say on this subject, so maybe one or two posts and then I will be done with it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Cognitive dissonance 3: followers and non-followers

Dear reader, you might wonder where the theme of cognitive dissonance is headed. To summarize, I am trying to focus on the following questions:

1) How can novices in a spiritual movement be led slowly to accept a situation where facts, theory, practice and behaviour are contradictory, when seen from a rational or even moral point of view (based on common societal rationality/morality, or on the rationality/morality preached by the movement itself)?

2) How can the avoidance of cognitive dissonance lead to communication problems between followers of a spiritual movement and non-followers?

3) How, personally, can one recognize one's own avoidance of cognitive dissonance, and how that of others? And how to deal with it?


1) How can novices in a spiritual movement be led slowly to accept a situation where facts, theory, practice and behaviour are contradictory, when seen from a rational or even moral point of view (based on common societal rationality/morality, or on the rationality/morality preached by the movement itself)?

I hope the previous posts covered a lot of the first question. But there is perhaps room for improvement. In Marc Galanter's book (see this post) one can read many interesting accounts of practicants of various spiritual movements.

Marc Galanter studied their motives also using questionnaires, and one of his results I found remarkable, although Galanter seems to attach a different explanation to it. The result being this:

Participating in such spiritual movement provides significant stress-relief. Stress-relief from life's difficulties, comfort when life is tough, support from other members, support from the Theory, ... whatever: it works.

I think participating in such spiritual movement also has quite a few other benefits, like mentioned in earlier posts. Personally I find our society quite materialistic. And there is too little talk and effort to really bring about a world free of war, hunger, ...etc. It was to me a relief to meet so many kind and loving people who also wish to actively help build a better world. Who think and talk about non-materialistic issues, who are willing to work on self-improvement etc.

So let me repeat in a different way some things stated in earlier posts:

There is a good reason that many kind and loving people turn to spiritual movements. This reason to me being, that the world outside these movements can hardly be called a kind and loving world, although there are many kind and loving people in it.

Put yet differently: it is relatively easy to scoff at the many spiritual movements' shortcomings. But such scoffing is hardly fair, if one refuses to see the many and severe shortcomings of the not-spiritually-oriented society.


This is why the counterquestion from spiritual movements makes so much sense:
Look what rationality and materialism has brought society. Look at how we avoid recognizing that the way we exploit the natural resources, and the way we exploit people in far away places, would be considered immoral if we would see it happening in our own backyard. Do you feel spiritually fulfilled in your life? Or are you feeling caught up in the treadmill, the rat race? Do you feel you live like a free loving person, or are you being lived by your fears and materialistic desires?

How can one free oneself of these mechanisms? Join our Movement, try our Method, meet our Leader, and experience for yourself the transformation.

Or something similar. Anyway, suppose you meet kind and caring, interested people, who invite you to try out their spiritual movement -no strings attached. Suppose you are looking for some way to live a more caring, loving, connected existence than that of our modern hardworking individualistic material society. Your critical questions are welcomed, and there are only few requirements of your behaviour.

Suppose you join, to try it out. Now you start bonding with some of the participants. Gatherings are pleasant in atmosphere, meditations are uplifting, you find that you can talk about real things in life, and few waste their time on the latest Gigabyte-expansion of the iPhone X36gT or what have you.

You take up the practice, and after some time you notice certain anomalies, discrepancies, contradictions in either Theory or behaviour or practice. But by now, people who you consider friends tell you: `Oh, that is all but words and rational thinking. Not the real essence. Feel with your heart, have faith in the Leader, He is such a radiant wonderful person! When I started out, I had quite some doubts myself. But with one meditation, he cleared my heart, I didn't understand but I felt I had to trust Him all the way.'

So you decide to try out the heart-approach, and develop faith in this Leader who by now you have met and who seems -albeit from quite some distance as there are many followers all eager to be with Him- to be indeed a loving and very spiritual person. Especially since everyone around is also constantly repeating this, and telling amazing stories about His Grace.

Over the years, it will not be surprising if you find yourself a member of a close group of kind loving people, with whom you share many of your deeper feelings and insights.

But what happens if over the years you also come across increasing contradictions?

* When for instance you are asked slowly but steadily for more and more money? [Where the movement claimed in the beginning that spirituality should be free of charge.]

* When the Leader starts asking more and more for strict obedience? [Where in the beginning you were given texts stating that critical thought was a requisite for spiritual progress.]

* When you find that supposedly `very advanced' and long-practising people from the Inner Circle have lied outright to you, and manipulated you in a distinctly non-spiritual way? [Where the movement promises to be very efficacious in bringing about spiritual progress, and where `Be truthful' is a main tenet in the movement]

* When the purity which attracted you in the beginning, is not practiced at all in the running of the Movement's organization. An organization which turns out to be very hierarchical, a Pyramid structure, dominated by men, and rife with intrigue and Inner Circle mechanisms, often favoring a limited number of nationalities? [Where the movement preaches equality of all, novice and `advanced' alike, woman and man alike, all nationalities alike]

* When slowly but surely, all sorts of `magical' or `paranormal' or spiritualistic elements are being introduced as essential in the Theory, and/or practice. For instance the existence of ghosts, or voices from the afterlife, and mediums; the affirmation of the truth of reincarnation; special visions etc. [Where in the beginning the movement promised that these things were to be left aside, and not relevant anyway.]


Yes, I think that this is the moment where the avoidance of cognitive dissonance can lead one beyond what is really self-acceptable. Because who wants to give up this warm nest of spiritual ` family' , `brothers and sisters', who feel so close and caring and interested in the real you? Who wants to give up this practice which makes one feel connected to some higher purpose, adding to a better world?

It is quite understandable why it can be a lot easier to simply close one's eyes for the inconsistencies, and quickly accept some non-rational explanation like:

`Some things in our World are beyond our understanding. The intellect however strives to be in command, and will therefore block our progress, beyond a certain point. We need a True Spiritual Leader, who has traveled the narrow passage Himself, to shake off our intellect and depend on Faith. For this Faith to develop, it is best to surrender completely to one's Leader. Pujashri Ammehula has repeatedly stated that the aspirant can only cross the seven Rings to the Central Level if he is carried by his Master like a child by its mother. To reach this level, where one is completely dependent on one's Leader, it is absolutely necessary to develop unthinking and unquestioning Obedience at all times.'


To me, the mechanism of cognitive-dissonance-avoidance explains why so many followers of spiritual movements prefer not to listen to rational arguments, or rational presentations of facts. In a sense, one could even argue that the more rational the approach, the more many followers will shut their ears to it.

And this brings us to the second question posed at the top of this post:

2) How can the avoidance of cognitive dissonance lead to communication problems between followers of a spiritual movement and non-followers?

I believe this question calls for a two-sided answer, but the elements for this have already been described.

On the one hand, non-followers will be quick to point out the inconsistencies of the movement, and possibly certain -in their eyes- dangerous or detrimental effects. (`You are in a cult! You are being brain-washed! Look out for your sanity, your family, your health, your money!'). But they probably do not see the flip sides of this coin: namely that the followers derive quite some benefit from their participation. Family-like ties for instance. These benefits, built up through the years, have helped build a world view that is not so rationally based as non-followers might assume. And therefore from the followers' point of view, it is the non-followers who are inconsistent and in possible danger (`You live a materialistic life, you are not spiritually fulfilled. You are being brain-washed by society to believe that ego-driven materialism is the road to happiness. You are wasting precious time needed to cleanse your heart and your soul. Look out for your spiritual well-being, look out for your eternal soul!')

So, you might be a bit surprised to find me thinking that both followers and non-followers often avoid their own cognitive dissonance.

This does not in any way diminish my conviction that it is morally wrong for the Inner Circle to deceive the followers of its Spiritual Movement. And I believe this to be a very frequent occurrence.

To be continued...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cognitive dissonance 2: mind & heart

Back to the last question raised in the previous post:

How can it be a problem and a pitfall, if by a slow process of avoiding cognitive dissonance, I gradually come to hold views and beliefs which earlier would have been paradoxical or morally wrong to me?


In my eyes, the question is relevant (otherwise I wouldn't ask it of course ;-)), but my answer will take some time because I do not perceive this as a black-and-white issue.

Any development, any learning implies (I believe) that I change my views and beliefs. And even in mathematics, I have experienced that what I first thought to be contradictory or impossible, later turned out to be correct or possible, once seen in the correct light or with the correct enabling definitions. (Fortunately or unfortunately depending on your point of view, the other way round also occurs frequently in mathematics.).

So to me the pitfall lies not in the changing of my views and beliefs per se. The pitfall lies in me deluding myself. In the posts on partial truth I raised the example of me riding over your bicycle, and then claiming that at the last moment your bicycle jumped under my car, damaging my front fender. You might laugh at this example, but I'm sure that people have given stranger testimony of events. Witchcraft, voodoo, and also Divine Intervention are but a few names given by people to justify things they say and/or think to have witnessed.

This car-bicycle example is of course rather mild. Things get more worrisome, when we consider a number of psychological experiments in which more profound consequences of belief-changing and rationalization were found to occur easily. Some of these experiments have become famous, also for their ethical dilemma: is it ethical to subject people to such an experiment?

In the famous Milgram experiment the participants were asked to give punitive dosages of electricity to subjects (this was actually not really happening, but the participants thought it was real). Although most participants had some initial trouble accepting that it was okay to do so, in the end they ended up giving really painful electrical shocks to their subjects (so they thought). The authorative figure of the doctor in charge told them it was ok, and rather than upsetting this expert authority and being a troublemaker, they chose to believe that what the doctor said had to be true.

From wikipedia:
Milgram's testing revealed that it could have been that the millions of accomplices were merely following orders, despite violating their deepest moral beliefs.[3] Milgram summarized the experiment in his 1974 article, "The Perils of Obedience", writing:

`The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

In another famous experiment The Third Wave, a class was slowly led by their history teacher to accept and join a (fictitious) movement `The Third Wave' which had clear fascistic tendencies. Quoting from Wikipedia:
Jones writes that he started the first day of the experiment (Monday, April 3 1967[2]) with simple things like proper seating, drilling the students until they were able to move from outside the classroom to their seats and take the proper seating position in less than 30 seconds without making a sound.[3] He then proceeded to strict classroom discipline emerging as an authoritative figure and improving efficiency of the class dramatically.

Jones closed the first day's session with a few rules, only meaning to be a one day experiment. Students had to be sitting at attention before the second bell, had to stand up to ask or answer questions and had to do it in three words or less, and were required to preface each remark with "Mr. Jones."[3]

On the second day he managed to meld his history class into a group with a supreme sense of discipline and community.[3] Jones named the movement "The Third Wave", after the common belief that the third in a series of ocean waves is last and largest.[3] Jones made up a salute resembling the one of Nazi regime[1] and ordered class members to salute each other even outside the class. They all complied with this command.[3]

The experiment took on a life of its own, with students from all over the school joining in: on the third day the class expanded from initial 30 students to 43 attendees. All of the students showed drastic improvement in their academic skills and tremendous motivation. All of the students were issued a member card and each of them received a special assignment (like designing a Third Wave Banner, stopping non-members from entering the class, etc). Jones instructed the students on how to initiate new members, and by the end of the day the movement had over 200 participants.[3] Jones was surprised that some of the students started reporting to him when other members of the movement failed to abide by the rules.[3]

On Thursday, the fourth day of the experiment, Jones decided to terminate the movement because it was slipping out of his control. The students became increasingly involved in the project and their discipline and loyalty to the project was astounding. He announced to the participants that this movement is only a part of a nationwide movement and that on the next day a presidential candidate of the movement would publicly announce existence of the movement. Jones ordered students to attend a noon rally on Friday to witness the announcement.[3]

Instead of a televised address of their leader, the students were presented with an empty channel. After few minutes of waiting, Jones announced that they had been a part of an experiment in fascism and that they all willingly created a sense of superiority that German citizens had in the period of Nazi Germany. He then played them a film about Nazi regime. That was the end of the experiment.[3]


[As an aside, these types of experiment are why I am really extremely wary of anyone advocating obedience-without-thinking to some Moral Authority. Any spiritual guide which I deem worthy of that name should have knowledge of these experiments, or at least insight in how the atrocities of the second World War and similar genocidal practices could possibly happen.

With this insight and knowledge in mind, I don't believe a spiritual guide would ever ask for total unthinking obedience (see also the posts on obedience). Because this insistence alone could very well be very painful for all those who have suffered under the consequences of totalitarian regimes.]


So, to come back to the pitfall that I perceive in the avoidance of cognitive dissonance, can I find out the divide between learning and development on the one hand, and self-delusion on the other?

I'm sorry to say that I believe this to be very difficult for most if not all of us.

As an example, I'm quite positive that many practicants of my former spiritual movement Sahaj Marg will consider me self-delusional. I am being led astray by my mind, and -poor soul- have lost contact with my heart. My mind is creating all sorts of ego-fed illusions, and therefore I am blinded from the love of the Master. Something like that.

I cannot find a 100% proof that they are wrong. It is just that their view no longer jibes sufficiently with mine, which leads me to holding more the opposite view. So perhaps this is a good moment to explain why this blog is meant mostly for people who are uneasy with their spiritual movement, and cannot put their finger on their unease. This is partly because I do not think that I cán influence people who are happy in their heart-oriented participation in a spiritual movement. But also partly because I'm not sure that I want to influence these people.

If they are happy and fulfilled, and they do not grievously wrong others, then who am I to want to change that?

The counter-remark to this is of course that if I consider the Inner Circle of a Spiritual Movement to be actively deceptive and power abusive, then I would also hold the well-meaning members responsible to some extent, for they are the ones giving power to this Inner Circle.


The question for this post remains:

How can I, personally, just for me, decide whether I am deluding myself (or am being led to delude myself)?

I think part of the answer lies in `unease'. Accepting some form of unease for a prolonged period of time might well lead me to a serious form of self-delusion. (You might call this the heart-approach)

Another part lies in: `face the facts'. Making a factual list of the important issues, I might be able to pierce through the cognitive dissonance avoidance mechanism. (You might call this the mind-approach).

I will come back to this, but for now this post is already terribly long, and should take its ending. To be continued.

Cognitive dissonance: something we all avoid

Let me begin with a quote from the wikipedia article on cognitive dissonance. This article is very informative, but I will not repeat it all, just the beginning:
Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The "ideas" or "cognitions" in question may include attitudes and beliefs, the awareness of one's behavior, and facts. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.[1] Cognitive dissonance theory is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology.

Dissonance normally occurs when a person perceives a logical inconsistency among his or her cognitions. This happens when one idea implies the opposite of another. For example, a belief in animal rights could be interpreted as inconsistent with eating meat or wearing fur. Noticing the contradiction would lead to dissonance, which could be experienced as anxiety, guilt, shame, anger, embarrassment, stress, and other negative emotional states. When people's ideas are consistent with each other, they are in a state of harmony, or consonance. If cognitions are unrelated, they are categorized as irrelevant to each other and do not lead to dissonance.

A powerful cause of dissonance is an idea in conflict with a fundamental element of the self-concept, such as "I am a good person" or "I made the right decision." The anxiety that comes with the possibility of having made a bad decision can lead to rationalization, the tendency to create additional reasons or justifications to support one's choices. A person who just spent too much money on a new car might decide that the new vehicle is much less likely to break down than his or her old car. This belief may or may not be true, but it would likely reduce dissonance and make the person feel better. Dissonance can also lead to confirmation bias, the denial of disconfirming evidence, and other ego defense mechanisms.


The reduction of cognitive dissonance is a very powerful human drive, I believe. And imnsho it very often seems to explain a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication between people.

Because, although it is often couched in scientific language, the gist of the above description of cognitive dissonance (avoidance) seems to be this:

We mold the facts that we perceive, to fit the conceptions that please us.


If like me, you have ever tried to have an open discussion with Jehovah witnesses ringing at your front door, you will understand that it is a difficult feat to accomplish. From both points of view. From the Jehovah witnesses' point of view, I am blind to the word of God, and therefore cannot see the facts clearly, such as that the Bible is the Absolute Truth. From my point of view, they are blind to the fact that the bible is a book, written by humans, and that there is no such thing as Absolute Truth.

And any discussion is not likely to bring about much change, since the giving up of either position would require such a dramatic effort to resolve the resulting cognitive dissonance...


On a more subtle level, I believe that avoidance of cognitive dissonance can play a significant part in the way I see my spiritual movement, as a practicant. This could be a (sub)conscious reason why many spiritual movements have a graded introduction to the `finer' aspects of the movement's Theory and Practice.

Because if I start out as a novice, and I am received in a loving atmosphere, by loving caring people, giving me time and attention and goodwill...and where questioning is okay, and where my `not yet fully compliant' behaviour is okay, then on a subconscious level, I might well develop the idea that this is a very ok group. Giving me lots of freedom etc.

Then, later, if my mind starts to perceive certain anomalies, it could well be that cognitive dissonance kicks in:

On the one hand, my spiritual movement is very fine, and I feel really uplifted by being connected to it.
On the other hand, something seems to be not quite right. Perhaps the Leader is focusing on money quite a lot, whereas in the beginning everybody said, no no, this is a free movement, no money required. So I ask a question, and the possible answer could be: `He is only doing it for us, you see. It is not about money, it is about teaching us to let go of our material bonds which are holding us back. Love is giving, giving to those that need us. If you give without thought, you will receive benefit thousandfold.'

So what to do? Will my mind say: `Well, it was nice this past year, but inconsistency is inconsistency, goodbye you all.' Or will it say: `OK, perhaps I am too focused on my intellect, and on my rationality. Of course, in true spirituality we share our resources. Let me step in too.'

In the second case, it would not surprise me if it continues like in the wikipedia car example. I have given money, so now I will change my belief system and perceptions to justify even more that I gave money.


Slowly, over the years perhaps, can I imagine that this would lead me to beliefs and thoughts which would have been paradoxical to me in the beginning?

Yes I can.

But why would this be a problem or a pitfall? Is this not a simple fact of life, that we learn, and thereby come to accept things which we firstly rejected?

(to be continued)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Cults - faith, healing and coercion (a book by Marc Galanter)

Since I seem to be in the mood to refer to other sources of information on `pitfalls of spirituality', let me mention a rather scientific book by Marc Galanter called:

Faith, healing and coercion

Marc Galanter is a well-known psychiatrist. From Wikipedia:
Marc Galanter, M.D. is Professor of Psychiatry at NYU, Founding Director of the Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse at NYU, and Director of the NYU Fellowship Training Program in Addiction Psychiatry. He is also a Division Director at NYU’s World Health Organization Collaborating Center, and Director of its national Center for Medical Fellowships in Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. He is Editor of the journal "Substance Abuse," the annual book series “Recent Developments in Alcoholism,” and author of the books, "Network Therapy for Alcohol and Drug Abuse" and “Spirituality and the Healthy Mind: Science, Therapy and the Need for Personal Meaning.” His NIH and foundation-funded studies have addressed family therapy for substance abuse, pharmacologic treatment for addiction, self-help treatment for substance abusers, and spiritually-oriented recovery.

So, do I recommend his book above? Well, I do, if you are not deterred by a scientific approach, and if you are willing to read what is perhaps not so easy English.

Because the book contains a very interesting mix, based on 15 years of research and personal experience:

* A very good and detailed description of various relevant issues around `cults', `religious groups' and the surrounding society

* A more or less scientific analysis of many of these issues (not always really possible though)

* An account of Marc Galanter's personal experience as a counselor with members of various spiritual movements


In the book, I came across two remarks which merit some additional posts on this blog. One remark is about cognitive dissonance (to be explained later). The other about `boundary' issues between a spiritual movement and general society.

To be continued, therefore.