Lifton’s Criteria of Thought Reform (1)
As applied to Transcendental MeditationTM
Gina Catena, M.S.
Dr. Robert J. Lifton and the late Dr. Margaret Singer studied thought reform of American prisoners from the Korean War (POWs). American soldiers returned from prison camps with unusual worldviews, spoken verbatim. Through many interviews, Lifton and Singer documented skilled mind-control methods from these wartime captors, while helping the “brainwashed” POWs reclaim their own personas. The 1962 film “Manchurian Candidate” with Frank Sinatra offers a fictitious glimpse into this chillingly real process. (2)
From his work with thought reform victims, Dr. Lifton itemized “Criteria for Thought Reform” commonly accepted in psychology academia. Other psychologists, Singer, Langone, and Lalich, describe variations of the same criteria.
This essay follows a condensed version of Lifton’s classic “Criteria of Thought Reform”, demonstrating how criteria apply to the lifestyle and teachings promoted by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation™ (TM) Movement.
“Any ideology -- that is, any set of emotionally-charged convictions about men and his relationship to the natural or supernatural world -- may be carried by its adherents in a totalistic direction. But this is most likely to occur with those ideologies which are most sweeping in their content and most ambitious or messianic in their claim, whether a religious or political organization. And where totalism exists, a religion, or a political movement becomes little more than an exclusive cult.” (3)
The following eight psychological themes may be used in judgment of any environment, to evaluate the use of mind-altering techniques.
“In combination, they create an atmosphere which may temporarily energize or exhilarate, but which at the same time pose a grave human threat.” (4)
The benign appearance of the methods, temporary exhilaration or “high”, and innocuous presentation of individuals while under-the-influence can render determination challenging for both professionals and laypersons. The psychological threat is real, nonetheless.
Lifton describes control over communication within an environment.
“When control is extremely intense, it becomes internalized control, managing a person’s inner communication.” (5)
TM programs apply various forms of control. The first stage of communication control begins with instruction or “Initiation” to TM when the new Initiate is gently instructed, “never speak the mantra aloud.” While the instructor explains that speaking the mantra would bring it to the crude level of speech, in reality the new initiate is gently trained to keep secrets “for his or her own good.”
Environmental control is exercised through mandated silence in the meditation domes, or enforced weeks of group silence on advanced courses. The monastic branches of TM, “Mother Divine” and “Purusha”, maintain a tightly controlled schedule for their participants. (6)
Information control includes Maharishi’s insistence that adherents watch edited version of televised news, permitting only ‘good news’ for course participants. Course participants are taught their meditation creates environmental influence “for world peace” thus increasing global good news. They are taught that exposure to “negativity” from bad news would taint pure consciousness, hindering their spiritual evolution. In this way, participants gently learn to ignore bad news and uncomfortable information.
The person-under-the-influence (or thought reform victim) then negates uncomfortable information as it stems from “negativity” or from “ignorance.” To squelch anxiety from threatening ideas, the victim may return to patterned responses and behaviors or attack in irrational defensiveness. This was clearly illustrated in the “Manchurian Candidate.”
Additionally, Maharishi bombards course participants with advanced TM “knowledge” recordings. Repetitions of the same information do not create understanding, but merely listener acceptance. Maharishi drones the same information again and again. The listener’s mind relaxes and “absorbs the knowledge” without question. With repeated exposure, this can conflict with individual autonomy as a person may relinquish critical analysis.
Environment control is further exhibited through controlled Vastu architecture. The TM Movement is building “Peace Palaces” around the world, architecturally designed to Maharishi Sthapatya-VedTM specifications. This unique milieu is different from other building environments, but each Peace Palace will resemble all other such palaces in the world. This supports an inner dissociation from the outside world for those residing within “palace” confines.
“Often a sequence of events, such as seminars, lectures, group encounters, which become increasingly intense and increasingly isolated, making it extremely difficult-- both physically and psychologically--for one to leave. (This) sets up a sense of antagonism with the outside world; it's "us against them”. (This is) Closely connected to the process of individual change of personality.” (7)
Environmental control is created in a variety of ways, through geographic distance – remember MIU’s original plan for remote “forest academies”? TM communities isolate themselves to varying degrees from larger surrounding communities.
Group process supports isolation through the TM-course mandated buddy system, lack of transportation when participating in a rounding (prolonged meditation) course, regimented schedules on advanced programs, or in the new “Peace Palace” compounds.
Each of the aforementioned methods of control influence sensory perception and neural development. (8)
Analysis of Lifton’s remaining criteria as applied to Transcendental Meditation will follow in subsequent posts.
Part Two of this series may be read here.
1) Lifton, R. (1989) Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Chapel Hill. University of North Carolina Press.
2) Frankenehimer, J, dir (1962) The Manchurian Candidate
3) ibid Lifton
4) ibid Lifton
5) ibid Lifton
6) http://motherdivine.org/ , http://www.purusha.org/1PurushaProgram.html
7) ibid Lifton
8) Taylor, K (2004) Brainwashing, The Science of Thought Control. Oxford. Oxford University Press.