In my cult counseling practice, I'm often asked about "dissociation." Many people don't know what it is. Or if they experience it.
In TM, we called it "spacing out," "blissing out," being a "space cadet," or many other dismissive names.
But what did we mean? And what's the big problem with it? A lot of people enjoy "blissing out."
Basically, dissociation is any gap in the major identity or cognitive functions: awareness, memory, conscious thought, certain language abilities, and of course identity itself.
We all dissociate sometimes. We daydream, get lost in thought, stare off into space, forget for a moment where we are, or lose track of our surroundings when deeply involved with a book.
But, in extreme cases, our main personality disappears during the gap — and another alter may take over. This is full-blown Dissociative Identity Disorder, what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder. This is rare.
The point is dissociation exists on a spectrum, from mild and pleasurable to severely disabling.
Dissociation is only a problem when it causes pain or difficulty functioning in daily life.
Some cultic studies scholars believe cultic organizations teach trance states, a form of dissociation, because they increase suggestibility — with obvious benefits to groups that control and indoctrinate members. (Not all scholars agree with the link between trance and suggestibility. This article offers evidence against the suggestibility hypothesis.)
Purposefully teaching dissociation to increase suggestibility seems likely to me. Every cultic group I've worked with promoted dissociation through trance, meditation, Ericksonian or classic hypnosis, chanting, speaking in tongues, group criticism sessions, singing hymns for hours, observing lengthy religious rituals, protracted group workshops, lengthy baffling group instruction, interminable incomprehensible videos, yoga, or other methods.
This doesn't mean dissociative techniques can't be pleasurable — or beneficial. But like so many good things in life, they may be perverted by leaders with dishonorable intentions. And like salt, a little adds flavor and is necessary for life. But a lot can kill you.
Dissociation is one of our primary defense mechanisms. Most readers have heard of the "fight or flight response": The body pumps out adrenaline when presented with danger. To this scholars add "freeze": Responding to a frightening stimulus with a "deer-in-the-headlights" response, in the hope the danger will go away by itself.
I'd add to the physical fight-flight-or-freeze triad two cognitive defenses: "appease" and "avoid." Most mammals exhibit an appease response: Think of a low-status dog presenting his belly to a threatening dominant pack leader. We humans may bow and scrape before a threatening boss, for instance.
"Avoiding" takes many forms: simply staying away from hostile places and people, to denial, to mentally checking out — or dissociating — when all other defense methods fail. Our minds protect us from overwhelming stress.
The classic example is the child who is raped. At the time, the child may lose consciousness or enter into a fantasy world. Later as an adult, the raped adult-child may dissociate — or even develop alters — to protect the mind against the extreme stress of the painful memory or self loathing. People with post-traumatic stress disorder tend to dissociate.
It's easy to understand how harsh criticism fits into this model. Being denounced in front of a group is excruciating. It makes sense the mind checks out.
But what about chanting or meditating?
It's possible trance is a response to the boredom of repeating a mantra or maintaining a blank mind. Or it may be trance is just an alternative way of invoking a natural response — a kind of "back door," just as we can hike our adrenaline by visualizing a dangerous situation when none is present.
Eastern meditation cults, or any group practicing extensive chanting or meditation, seem to cause unusually high levels of dissociation for some people in my experience. (I find fewer problem reports from mindfulness meditation practitioners — although I've worked with followers of Goenka who report dissociation.)
Mantra-based and similar meditations themselves are forms of learned, voluntary, and controlled dissociation.
For most people 20 or 30 minute meditations are not only not dangerous, they appear to be beneficial — and enjoyable. Meditation is one of Nature's miracles, I believe.
But some people report meditation practice can lead to involuntary, uncontrolled "spacing out" in daily life. Some groups have members meditating for 4 or 8 hours a day. (TM is one of these.) It appears the mind overlearns meditative states, and they may occur spontaneously and without conscious control in daily life. For some of my clients, this causes difficulty leading a normal family or professional life.
A side point: Trance and meditation appear to become addictive for some people. (You may be interested in this article on trance addiction.)
Whatever mechanism allows meditation to induce dissociation, for a significant minority of meditate excessively, it becomes involuntary and dysfunctional.
Many long-term meditating clients initially deny dissociating in daily life.
But after reviewing the symptoms, some tell me they've dissociated for years.
Are you dissociating? Is it a challenge in your life?
Below is a list of possible symptoms. Nobody experiences all of them. Even experiencing a few — if they interfere with your life &mdash is a matter for concern.
I've also linked to an online test that may indicate if you are experiencing dissociation. Please feel free to report your own experiences of dissociating in the comments below — maintaining your anonymity if you choose.
- Depersonalization: Symptoms of Losing Identity (Gaps)
- You sometimes stare off into space, not thinking and unaware of passing time
- You sometimes feel like a "witness" to what is happening to your body
- When driving, you sometimes realize you don't remember all or part of the trip
- Listening to someone talk, you sometimes realize you did not hear what was just said
- You sometimes talk aloud to yourself when you are alone
- You sometimes find yourself somewhere, with no idea how you got there
- You have no memory of some important life events, for example wedding, graduation
- You sometimes feel your body does not belong to you
- You sometimes remember a past event so vividly you feel you are reliving it
- You sometimes aren't sure whether things you remember really did happen or a dream
- Sometimes you can't remember if you did something or just thought about doing it
- You sometimes find a familiar place strange and unfamiliar
- Watching TV or reading, you sometimes become so absorbed you're unaware of the room around you
- You sometimes get so involved in a fantasy or daydream it feels as if it is really happening (may be understood as a "vision")
- You act so differently from situation to situation you like two different people
- You find yourself dressed in clothes you don't remember putting on
- You sometimes find new things among your belongings you do not remember buying
- Sometimes people approach you whom you don't know. They may call you by another name or insist you've met them before
- You notice or are told you sometimes do not recognize friends or family members
- You sometimes are accused of lying when you do not think you are
- You sometimes look in a mirror and do not recognize yourself
- You sometimes find you are able to do things with amazing ease and spontaneity that usually are difficult for you (sports, work, social situations, etc.)
- You sometimes find evidence you've done something you don't remember doing
- You sometimes find writings, drawings, or notes you have done but don't remember doing
- You sometimes hear voices that tell you what to do or comment on what you're doing
- Derealization: Symptoms of Losing Connection to Reality
- You sometimes feel like you are falling into a void
- You sometimes feel like you are "outside your body" — alongside, above or behind
- You sometimes feel like you are floating
- You sometimes feel kuje you and your surroundings do not seem real
- You sometimes see stationary objects appear to move
- Sometimes people and objects appear far away or unclear
- You sometimes see surroundings through a diffused light, fog or mist (or "fiery" light)
- Sometimes your whole body enveloped in light
- You sometimes feel your body is expanded — feels huge/larger than normal
- You sometimes feel your body has shrunk to minute proportions/smaller than normal
- You sometimes feel your body is being pressed to the ground
- You sometimes are unusually sensitive to light and sound
- You sometimes have tunnel vision
- You sometimes find you can ignore pain
You'll find a valid, reliable online questionnaire for dissociation here. If you found yourself saying "yes" to several of the symptoms of dissociation above, I recommend you check it out.
You may be able to do some self-help with techniques I mention here.
But if you continue to experience discomfort or difficulty functioning due to dissociation symptoms, I suggest you speak about it with a mental health professional — if only to ease your mind.
John M. Knapp, LMSW
Therapist. Cult counselor. Coach