Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Sharon K. Farber Ph.D.
Sharon K. Farber Ph.D.

Cults and the Mind-Body Connection

A form of soul murder.

I just returned from the International Cultic Studies Association's annual conference and wanted to tell you about soul murder, the term coined by psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold to describe the intentional attempt to stamp out or compromise the separate identity of another person. That is what destructive cults do.

My interest in cults grew out of my shock many years ago upon discovering how deeply my brother was involved in Transcendental Meditation (TM), so deeply that he lost the ability to think for himself. Since then I have treated a number of patients who had been profoundly damaged by cults, and when I heard about the International Cultic Studies Association some years ago, I joined and have attended and presented on topics related to cult involvement, something that the mental health field tends to know little about. At these conferences, I have met so many intelligent people who have been victims of cults, their families, researchers, and mental health professionals in the U.S. and abroad with expertise in the treatment of those who had been involved in a cult. I also met what are today known as exit counselors, usually former cult members themselves who left their cult, who will talk with individuals who agree to speak with them. (No kidnapping, as in the deprogramming of years ago.) ICSA even has a number of members who were born into a cult. Having high intelligence is no protection from becoming victimized by a cult.

My practice is two or three miles from Irvington and Tarrytown, in Westchester County, where the Rev, Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church (aka the Moonies) owned hundreds of acres. At least a few times a week I pass by Belvedere, a large estate where many followers live. Years ago, I imagined myself infiltrating the group but after reading accounts of how people can succumb to mind control, I decided against it. At the conference, I met a young man who discovered when he was around 12 that the Rev. Moon was his father.

The ICSA is a global network of people concerned about psychological manipulation and abuse in cultic or high-demand groups, alternative movements, and other environments. ICSA is not affiliated with any religious or commercial organizations. Its mission, as stated at their website, is to apply research and professional perspectives to help those who have been spiritually abused or otherwise harmed by psychological manipulation and high-demand groups, educate the public, promote and conduct research, and support helping professionals interested in cults, related groups, and psychological manipulation. Hearing parents speak at the conference of their anguish after losing a child to a cult was heart-wrenching. And yet they gained some comfort and lessened their feeling of isolation by sharing their stories with others who understood.

Cult activity is far more common than you might imagine. Our attention was drawn to cults in the '60s and '70s, when Allen Ginsberg said that life should be ecstasy and went to India and Hindu culture in search of it. Many young people followed suit, questioning western values and embracing eastern thought. Indian clothing and Hindu practices became the rage, and we became accustomed to seeing young men in orange robes chanting their Hare Krishna mantra in airports and bus stations, where they sought recruits.

hare kṛiṣhṇa hare kṛiṣhṇa

kṛiṣhṇa kṛiṣhṇa hare hare

hare rāma hare rāma

rāma rāma hare hare

Their heads were shaved except for a small lock of hair in the back, and they had paint marks on their foreheads. These representatives of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKON) became known as the Hare Krishnas. If anyone had told me years ago that I would develop a friendship with a man who had been deeply involved with this cult, I would not have believed it.

The first generation of cult members were young people who left home and school looking for meaning at a vulnerable period in their life. They were seduced into thinking they had found what they were looking for in such groups as the Unification Church, Children of God, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Scientology and others. As their numbers increased, the different groups and practices began to blur in the public eye.

When we think of cults today, we tend to think of the Hare Krishnas or other eastern meditation groups. But many Christian cults have evolved, such as the Jesus freaks, Children of God, The Way International, the Unification Church, and the Mormon Church, And today cults are not limited to religious groups but include EST, Scientology, yoga cults, psychotherapy cults, and philosophy cults such as Aesthetic Realism.

Just what is a cult? The word itself is controversial, because it used to be used to mean any religious group with unusual beliefs that deviated from the norm, what we might today consider a sect. Today, the term destructive cult is used to describe groups that use manipulative techniques and mind control to heighten suggestibility and subservience. They tend to isolate recruits from former friends and family in order to promote total dependence on the group. The aim is to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, which is to have total control over members.

Gaining total control of members is done by assaulting the minds of recruits, an assault meant to control their minds. The mind is located in the brain and in certain hormones and enzymes that travel through the body, affecting our senses. It is through the senses. through seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching. that we know about the world. Think of the body as a giant pharmaceutical factory that manufactures powerful, mind-altering chemicals that we can release by immersing ourselves in mood-altering activities or ingesting mood-altering substances. The medieval Christian mystics who starved and flagellated themselves knew this well. So do Turkey’s Whirling Dervishes, who once a year put on long white robes with full skirts, black cloaks, and tall conical red hats and twirl in unison to the sound of drums and flutes, faster and faster, whirling their way toward God and ecstasy.

Cults start seducing people with love-bombing, paying a great deal of attention to and being very affectionate with potential recruits. a very effective way of connecting with someone who is feeling lonely and isolated. Then they assault and overwhelm their senses by using various techniques to induce a dissociated state, an altered state of consciousness, a trance state, in which mind and body are disconnected from each other. These techniques include sleep and food deprivation, drumming, chanting, lecturing on and on for hours, flashing lights, spinning around in circles, all of which assault the senses and break down a person’s ability to think. The cult uses mind control to fill the dissociated mind with their beliefs and magical thinking. A moment comes when the mind shuts down and seems to snap from this assault to the nervous system. Snapping may happen suddenly and abruptly, or it may be a slower, more gradual process of subtle changes, resulting in personality change.

Many cults promote meditation, at times for many hours a day. When TM first came on the scene in the sixties, most people thought of it as a benign practice occurring 20 minutes in the morning and evening, but many advanced TMers devote many hours a day to meditating. In fact, they may go into the dissociated meditational state without intending to do so, and may live largely in a dissociated state of consciousness.

Meditation is generally promoted as having many health benefits, and mindfulness meditation has been actively promoted in the past two decades. It is a western, non-sectarian, research-based form of meditation derived from a 2,500-year-old Buddhist practice called Vipassana. However, it is important to know that meditation of any kind is not for everyone. There are several studies indicating that up to as many as 55% of long-term meditators showed adverse effects, including partial epileptic-type seizures, with adverse effects increasing with the length of practice. Meditation can produce anxiety, panic, confusion, depression, agitation, ongoing dissociation, hallucinations, tics, sweating, trembling, shivering, worsened interpersonal relations, psychotic breakdowns and suicidal tendencies in some people. Meditation is particularly dangerous for those with a history of schizophrenia.

The TM movement is known for ascribing positive qualities to all kinds of cult-induced psychopathology. A psychotic breakdown may be regarded as achieving cosmic consciousness, the key to enlightenment. TMers are indoctrinated to believe that if they spend thousands of dollars for a higher level of training, they would be able to levitate, also known as yogic flying. David Wants to Fly, a recently released film about a young man’s interest in levitation, has scenes of levitation, some of which can be viewed on YouTube. What you see is not people flying, but sitting in the lotus position within a dome-shaped structure known as a levitation dome, on a thick layer of foam rubber padding, and bouncing and hopping around on their behinds. I have also heard that they strap on foam rubber “butt pad,” which happen to be the number one bestselling accessory at Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa. Apparently, they help someone bouncing around on his behind to bounce higher.

Radiance, the TM Ideal community where my brother lives has, in addition to a community swimming pool, its own levitation dome. My brother said he banged into a wall while levitating and broke his good watch, making him decide to switch to a cheaper Timex. I tried it myself. I just bounced around. You too can bounce around on your behind without spending lots of money to learn how to do it. You don’t need to meditate. Just don’t call it levitation. Although TM purported that members could levitate, they never allowed photographers or filmmakers to witness it, and for good reason.

The cult preys upon the tendency of many to rely on magical thinking, which reinforces the tendency to endow the leader with omnipotent and magical powers, much like the child’s early mental representations of the parent who at that time, did control his universe. The member can readily come to believe that the leader can read his mind or hear conversations at a distance. Slowly, greater and greater irrational power is attributed to the leader. Because the cult leader tends to be a person with a sense of self-esteem so damaged that he requires the adoration, obedience, and subjugation of others to gain a sense of self-esteem and power, he cannot get enough of this. This is very much the same dynamic as is found in cases of domestic violence, when one spouse, usually the husband, tries to assert total control over the other, seemingly a cult of one.

Some in cults who cannot verbally express what they feel about what has been done to them express it through their bodies, harming themselves through cutting and burning themselves, starving their bodies or stuffing themselves with food when they can get their hands on it, or purging through vomiting. When they get oo sick in the cult, this is when the cult will eject them because they feel no responsibility for getting them the help they need. It should not be a surprise to hear that many cults are openly against psychotherapy.

I hope this helps you understand a bit more about soul murder. The victims of soul murder remain in large part possessed by another, their souls in bondage to another. Shengold cites George Orwell ‘s 1984, in which O’Brien says to Winston Smith: “You will be hollow. We will squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves ... Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

There is help available to those who have been victimized by a cult. There is a chapter about the cults, “Cult-Induced Ecstasies and Psychosis” in my book, Hungry for Ecstasy: Trauma, the Brain, and the Influence of the Sixties (2013). The ICSA website also has much valuable information there.

In New York, there is the Cult Hotline and Clinic at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, reached at 212-632-4640. Arnold Markowitz is the director. There are also local ICSA support meetings in NYC, Philadelphia, and Boston. Bill and Lorna Goldberg, both licensed clinical social workers, run a monthly free support group for people whose lives have been affected by cults, victims, and families, in Englewood, New Jersey. There is also help available in other areas of the country and in Europe.

About the Author
Sharon K. Farber Ph.D.

Sharon K. Farber, Ph.D., is a board certified clinical social worker, maintaining a private practice in psychotherapy in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

Website, LinkedIn
More from Psychology Today

More from Sharon K. Farber Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today