An Introduction to Thought Reform Techniques
Seven years ago I suspected Serge Benhayon was up to no good, but more recently was staggered to learn his group has expanded internationally into a full blown and immensely profitable Esoteric Healing cult, which thrives by establishing a doctrinal, lifestyle and workshop dependency among its recruits.
His students insist that in following Serge they are choosing a healthier and more authentic way of being, although ample evidence shows many to be experiencing poor health, disharmony in relationships, estrangement from friends and family, dependence on repeated attendance at workshops and courses, and activities which compromise them professionally, financially and ethically. Their seemingly blind allegiance to their corrupt and destructive leader begs the question from outsiders: how does he gain such a hold?
In the weeks I’ve been gathering information on Universal Medicine’s activities it’s become clear to me the group’s success is down to Serge’s system of thought reform (aka mind control or brainwashing) techniques. I will walk through them in detail in an upcoming post, but I thought it best to begin with an introduction to theories of the cult milieu and thought reform and how they apply to UM. As an outline, I’ll use psychiatrist and expert on extremist psychology, Robert Jay Lifton’s definitions of cults and their techniques for manipulating and exploiting recruits into dependency. (Wikipedia crash course here)
What is a cult?
Lifton describes a cult as exhibiting three distinguishing characteristics: thought-reform-like practices, a shift from worshipping spiritual principles to worship of the person of the leader, and a combination of spiritual quest from below and exploitation, usually economic or sexual, from above. (Lifton, 2000, p.11)
You couldn’t ask for a more succinct description of Universal Medicine. Serge’s spiritual principles, free from any restraining influence of a traditional religious or spiritual institution, are unfocussed and poorly defined, yet not only do his students clamour for every nonsensical adage uttered by their toilet enlightened leader, they swarm to defend his indefensible behaviour. At the same time, their object of worship exploits their pursuit of innermost ‘love’ with his finely tuned workshop sales techniques. While the students remain locked in an endless, financially draining quest for elusive attainment, his morbidly divisive Puritanism encourages them to estrange themselves from his detractors.
Lifton’s 8 themes of thought reform
Lifton writes that each of the eight themes has a totalistic quality; each depend upon an equally absolute philosophical assumption; and each mobilizes certain individual emotional tendencies, mostly of a polarizing nature. In combination they create an atmosphere which may temporarily energize or exhilarate, but which at the same time poses the gravest of human threats.
Serge seeks to isolate his followers by controlling communication and access to information not only within the group, but within individual minds. The effect is a limiting of critical evaluation. This is justified by Serge’s assumption of his own omniscience, his conviction he has exclusive possession of reality.
I know more than any scientist in my inner heart … I know everything about the universe and how it works. I can answer any question about any mystery in the world, any mystery in the universe.– Serge Benhayon’s message for the “New Era”, January 1, 2012.
The control of communication is evident in the constricted jargon used among UniMed students and also in their propaganda blogs where outsiders are blocked from commenting or questioning and the students themselves are subject to guidelines and ‘assistance’ when composing their own posts. (Except, of course, when the SergeProp machine blew a gasketand Kyla dropped all pretence of ‘lovingness’ in her vitriolic, baselessly accusatory and esoterically unbecoming post.)
Students experiences are manipulated to appear spontaneous but are orchestrated by Serge and his enablers to demonstrate his divine authority and grandiose cosmic ‘insight’. He portrays himself as set apart from humanity, reinterpreting historical events and scriptures for his own purposes, and reinventing himself as a messiah on the one hand and a hybrid Da Vinci reincarnate on the other. Coincidences and happenstance events are interpreted as omens or prophecies, for example in Lou’s account, where Serge concocted a sense of past life connection with a potential recruit.
Impressed by the mystical quality of this deception, trusting students are also condemned if they question Serge’s divinity. Such impulses are regarded as !PRANIC!, as in petty, selfish, lowly, impure, evil and resistant to ‘the work’.
Rather, students develop what Lifton calls the psychology of the pawn, surrendering to his manipulation and participating in the manipulation of others, in an endless round of betrayals and self betrayals required to keep them in check. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the vehement defensiveness and steadfast denials of facts by Serge’s brigade of blogging apologists – who are currently maintaining UM’s only detractors are a couple of abusive husband/troublemakers, while very aware of my public statements on Serge’s behaviourand UM’s troubling activities. In so doing, students deny themselves opportunities for critical evaluation, independent action and genuine self expression.
Demand for Purity
Benhayon’s world is a black and white one of absolute good and absolute evil, which he expresses as FIERY and :-o!PRANIC:-o! Evidently, anyone who conforms to Serge’s Puritanism and continues to ‘invest’ in the UniMed workshop treadmill for a higher reincarnation is FIERY. Anyone who questions the cost, monetary or otherwise, of Serge’s version of enlightenment is deemed !PRANIC! :-o, as is any healthy, life affirming factor that distracts students from ‘the work’. As such, harmless people, foods and activities are met with anxiety, moral indignation and revulsion.
The polarization of experience in Universal Medicine, the deification of those doing ‘the work’ and the demonization of those who aren’t creates a kind of siege mentality within the group as well as an internal culture of guilt and shame. Lifton writes that the guilt and shame are perpetuated by an ethos of continuous reform, a demand that one strive permanently and painfully for a standard or perfection which not only doesn’t exist but is alien to the human condition.
Subsequently, as we’ve seen repeatedly, students reject relationships which may not have been perfect, but weren’t beyond repair. They strive to adhere to a puritanical diet which is erratically and dangerously changed at Serge’s whim, and to grasp a doctrine which is essentially incoherent. In other words, they’re set up individually and collectively to never win, to always feel themselves inadequate and lacking any firm spiritual, physical or emotional footing. Lifton says ‘the sense of guilt and the sense of shame become highly-valued: they are preferred forms of communication, objects of public competition…’ The competition plays out in expenditure; financial, emotional and energetic on the addictive cycle of workshop ‘work’ and recently on shrill defences of the Master.
Students also apply the standards of FIERY AND !PRANIC! to their own character, imbuing their shrunken capacity for ‘lovingness’ with excessive virtue, whilst condemning any impulse to drink coffee, eat ice cream or enjoy music or sex as unnatural, dangerous or foreign to their ‘true’ pure nature. Impurity is seen as externally or remotely generated, evidence of pollution from outer !PRANIC! forces, or horrendous misdeeds from past lives that need to be ‘cleansed’. Either way, they can never relax.
Once a student takes such a black versus white, good versus evil view of self and environment, they lose a sense of the grey, and the nuances and complexities of character, situation and morality. They become unforgiving.
The Cult of Confession
Serge’s attempt at cold ‘reading’ my ovaries was an initiatory confessional ploy. By pressuring me to make disclosures of trauma or negative experiences with men, he was seeking to render me vulnerable and exploitable. With many of this followers, that tactic would have succeeded.
It’s also a regular technique used within the workshops to have students recall and share traumatic events. Patients and students relinquish privacy and personal boundaries under the auspices of working toward ‘purity’, ‘soulfulness’ or ‘ascendance’.
At first this group confession or disclosure gives a sense of intimacy and unity in purpose, but when the student has doubts or questions, there is the fear that past traumas or confessed deeds could be resurrected and exploited. Having undergone the exposing dissolution of boundaries, students live under a constant shadow of retraumatization, with nowhere to go but to cling to the group.
Lifton writes: the cult of confession has effects quite the reverse of its ideal of total exposure: rather than eliminating personal secrets, it increases and intensifies them. He continues: Finally, the cult of confession makes it virtually impossible to attain a reasonable balance between worth and humility. The result is an odd mix of anxious vulnerability and righteousness. Enmeshed in a habit of self accusation, students feel they have the right to judge others. For instance, they live in fear of freeze dried coffee or beer or sex and virtually criminalize anyone who dares indulge.
The Sacred Science
Serge is constantly claiming his doctrine is ‘truth’, as if he has a monopoly on it, and he spends a good deal of his time disparaging other doctrines or teachers to reinforce this view. His doctrine is beyond all questioning or dispute and is regurgitated by his students in convenient sound bites of limited vocabulary, but never discussed, disputed, analysed or debated.
While Serge’s appearance of having all the answers appears to offer comfort and security, such faith is difficult to sustain, particularly when his nonsense is so starkly at odds with reality, and the world of experience proves to be much less absolute than Serge would have us believe.
On the one hand, to question ‘The One’s’ divine authority is to induce anxiety and guilt, on the other, unquestioning adherence contributes to the closing of personality and avoidance of the kinds of knowledge and experience necessary for genuine self expression and psychological development.
Loading the Language
Lifton would describe SergeSpeak as packed with thought-terminating cliches. Easily memorized and regurgitated, complex concepts are reduced to a limited vocabulary of brief, reductive, definitive sounding statements. FIERY, PRANIC!! We’ve all come to know and love !!PRANIC!!! 😮 as a word that Serge would define as lowly, evil, tainted, impure and detrimental to the ascent of the soul etc. However, the rest of us are realizing PRANIC! equates with anything that disagrees with Serge’s morose negativity, anything sexy, anything nutritious, delicious or fun, and anyone worth associating with. To UniMed students these things are dangerous and to be avoided as impediments to ascent to higher incarnations – no matter that this entails a decline in health and libido and certain bankruptcy.
SergeSpeak has an entire glossary of subverted language. For example, Serge’s version of ‘love’, to anyone with the slightest critical capacity, more closely resembles what is known in common parlance as ‘hate’. Yet, students wishing to belong in UniMed are compelled to learn Serge’s loaded language and to express themselves without nuance. Lifton tells us constriction of language results in constriction of the mind. Linguistic deprivation or limitation limits the capacities for thinking and feeling. Along the same lines, it could be argued distortion and subversion of language distorts and subverts thinking and feeling too.
Lifton perfectly describes the workshop histrionics and online propaganda posturings of the linguistically deficient and thereby intellectually neutered UniMed students:
As in other aspects of totalism, this loading may provide an initial sense of insight and security, eventually followed by uneasiness. This uneasiness may result in a retreat into a rigid orthodoxy in which an individual shouts the ideological jargon all the louder in order to demonstrate his conformity, hide his own dilemma and his despair, and protect himself from the fear and guilt he would feel should he attempt to use words and phrases other than the correct ones. Or else he may adapt a complex pattern of inner division, and dutifully produce the expected clichés in public performances while in his private moments he searches for more meaningful avenues of expression. Either way, his imagination becomes increasingly dissociated from his actual life experiences and may tend to atrophy from disuse.
Doctrine over person
Students’ personal experiences are subordinated to Serge’s doctrine, and any contrary experience must be denied or reinterpreted to fit. In spite of the claims to ‘lovingness’, students are only valued if they conform to UM’s prescribed roles, as is evidenced by the labelling of enquiry as ‘resistance’, the frequent labelling of disagreement as ‘hate’, or truth telling as a disruptive ‘violation’ or appeals to common sense as ‘abuse’. It’s also seen in the prompt badgering and collective vilification of any student expressing doubts or wanting out.
Commonsense perceptions are denied or disallowed if hostile to UniMed’s ideology, such as questioning the wisdom of cutting whole food groups from one’s or one’s child’s diet simply because SERGE SAID THEY’RE PRANIC! Or of burning books for the same reason. To question the dogma is to risk rejection from the group. To not question is to allow one’s autonomy and integrity to be increasingly compromised, drawing the dependent student ever deeper into a culture of distortion, dishonesty and corruption from which it requires inordinate willpower to escape.
Dispensing of Existence
Serge’s worldview is intensely polarizing, dividing human beings as worthy or unworthy, good or evil, FIERY or PRANIC! according to their allegiance to UniMed and their ability to keep forking out $$$ for workshops, treatments and products. All outside the group are portrayed as loveless, abusive, Lords of Form, PRANIC!, hateful, ‘intellectual’ (a UM insult) or trolls.
Again, this is a symptom of Serge’s extravagant hubris, where in order to maintain his as the exclusive path to soulful ascension, he is compelled to annul all forms of opposition. For students who have bought into Serge’s monopoly, they face an existential conflict of ‘being versus nothingness’. Its accompanying fear of annihilation is ameliorated only by adherence to UM. Should a student stray from the Universal Medicine path they face excommunication from their former ‘friends’ and hence a symbolic withdrawal of their right to existence, and, in addition, damnation for many lifetimes to come.
Lifton would put it that students who place their unqualified faith in Serge Benhayon and immerse themselves in the cult of Universal Medicine do so because it offers an intense peak experience and a sense of transcending the ordinary, of freedom from the encumbrance of ambivalence, and a feeling of entering a sphere of truth and sincerity beyond any they’ve known or imagined. Behind ideological totalism lies the ever-present human quest for the omnipotent guide…that will bring ultimate solidarity to all men and eliminate the terror of death and nothingness.
However, Lifton writes:
such imposed peak experiences – as contrasted with those more freely and privately arrived at…are essentially experiences of personal closure. Rather than stimulating greater receptivity and “openness to the world,” they encourage a backward step into some form of “embeddedness” – a retreat into doctrinal patterns more characteristic…of the child than of the individuated adult.
In the case of Universal Medicine, its followers become emotionally and intellectually constricted, losing their essential individuating imagination and sense for subtlety while clinging to a false promise they may transcend the imperfections and ambivalences which are essential to our humanity.
The combination of closed personality, self accusation and hostility to the PRANIC! nature of outsiders, and indeed this entire plane of existence, leads to the kinds of group excesses we’re seeing in the collective malnutrition, the frenzy to attend more workshops, the disregard for loved ones outside UM, the fanatical defences of Serge, the extreme denials of dishonesty, harm and wrongdoing, and the now rabid accusations of abuse directed at anyone who dares seek the truth.
The problem with such excessive behaviour within UM is that it mobilizes opposition and hostility from outside, creating further pressure to close ranks. Serge and his followers feel vindicated that the world is indeed evil, PRANIC! and against them, yet lack the insight to realize their antisocial behaviour and negativity brought it on themselves.
In the next thought reform post, Universal Medicine is Habit Forming Part One I’ll walk us through Serge’s system of techniques for filtering out dissenters, luring susceptible recruits and pervading their consciousness to maintain his psychological hold.
Lifton, RJ, 1989, ‘Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism’, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London.
Lifton, RJ, 2000, ‘Destroying the World to Save It’, Owl Books, New York.