Deception, dependency and dread are the three steps in the cult recruitment and conversion process.
The stages were first described as debility, dependency and dread (Farber, Harlow & West, 1957), and later adapted by cult expert, Michael Langone, who replaced ‘debility’ with ‘deception’ (Langone, 1991). Universal Medicine exploits all four Ds. Many ‘students’ are in a state of debilitation when introduced to the group. Physical, mental or emotional debility make customers more vulnerable and less able to defend themselves from invasion.
Serge has styled himself as a ‘healer’ and initially comes across as confident, gentle and concerned. He seems sympathetic and self assured, and knowledgeable of spirituality and healing. His motive, however, is to recruit followers to his scheme of personal deification and profit.
Benhayon establishes trust via his easy, charming, and seemingly caring manner. However, his healing claims are bogus and misleading. His Esoteric healing practices and ‘gentle breath meditation’ are for the most part comforting and relaxing and induce states of dissociation (psychic numbing, trancelike or altered states of consciousness). Such states compromise students’ critical faculties and increase suggestibility. From there he implants his belief system via his lectures, books and audio, which students read and listen to repeatedly. His lecture technique and invented jargon are designed to keep students confused and mystified.
To the group, Benhayon presents himself as an enlightened ‘fifth degree initiate’ and distinguished reincarnate of Leonardo da Vinci and others. Followers see him as an enlightened master and increasingly seek his guidance in their decision making. He persuades students to attend workshops, courses and presentations, telling them they need to continue Esoteric healing sessions conducted by practitioners he has trained, to ‘clear’ disease causing energies and entities.
Workshop recruits are drawn into deepening commitment and eventual dependency. Students become hooked on the blissful states they experience during the hands on healing sessions. The group also practices love bombing – bombarding recruits with flattery, which is most appealing to those unused to personal popularity or who are already self centred and emotionally immature. It reinforces any narcissistic tendencies. Confessional practices help group bonding, but erode personal boundaries and privacy.
Benhayon’s ‘philosophy’ is highly ambiguous. He talks of gentleness and love, yet graphically portrays the world outside Universal Medicine as evil and hostile. Students are taught to loathe their own bodies. According to Benhayon their bodies are weak and impure vehicles – the ‘carnal expression’ of Esoterically incorrect choices, and traumas from past lives. He teaches that the body ultimately obstructs the ‘light of the soul’ and that healing is has nothing to do with improving health and wellbeing. Benhayon preaches that adherence to his ‘self-loving choices’ are the only avenue for escaping the world’s horrors, and disease and suffering in future reincarnations. Because his ‘philosophy’ is imposed rather than discussed, and questioning is discouraged, students become increasingly indoctrinated and less autonomous in their thinking.
Loved ones and acquaintances report that UM students become dogged, secretive and humourless, or develop an odd sense of humour closely related to Benhayon’s. Behaviours and personal expression become group motivated and uniform. They commonly break familiar relationships and change their lifestyles by adopting different sleeping, dietary, exercise routines prescribed by Benhayon. Students spend hours every day immersed in Universal Medicine, studying the teachings, helping to generate social media propaganda, and taking part in healings and meetings or interactions with other students. Benhayon’s voice and worldview permeates every aspect of their lives, from their daily habits, posture and body awareness, to attitudes to parenting, relationships and intimacy. Followers’ personalities commonly become polarized and extremist, judgemental toward the world outside Universal Medicine, yet uncritical of Serge and the group. Emotionally, they appear detached to the feelings of those around them, yet they are highly defensive toward criticism of UM.
Dependency is reinforced by fear. Benhayon induces fear of everything he deems to be ‘pranic’ or non Esoteric. Followers are pressured to reject anyone outside the group who is not willing to join his Way of the Livingness. They live in irrational fear of gluten, dairy, alcohol, sex and anyone who indulges in them, believing that those things can cause disease and misfortune for themselves and their loved ones.
Benhayon alludes to traumas or misdeeds from students’ pasts or past lives and how the ‘energy’ of those is still impacting them. They come to dread the possibility of tortures that could extend through many future reincarnations. Students are also threatened with rape by supernatural entities if they stray from the path – for example if they come into contact with someone whose had a glass of wine. Parents are told their transgressions can bring about the same fate for their children.
UM’s oppressive worldview keeps students emotionally fragile. They cling fearfully to the dogma, the repetitive rituals and regimes, the community and the guru himself. They are caught in a double bind. The lifestyle causes them difficulties with their health, finances and relationships, however, they believe it will damage their ‘karma’ if they reject it and worse problems will ensue.
It takes courage to escape UM’s suffocating world view and the bonds formed with essentially good but tragically deceived fellow followers. We’ve been hearing accounts of students coming out of Universal Medicine who feel embarrassed about their involvement and not realizing what was being done to them. However, Benhayon’s methods are comprehensive. They’re designed to penetrate over time so that the student, who genuinely believes the fifth degree teacher to be a serene and enlightened healer, and his philosophy to be one of love, compassion and gentleness, is unaware they’re being manipulated. The onset of suggestibility and paranoia is insidious. Many followers were open minded and trusting – which in normal environments and among conscientious human beings is not a fault. Benhayon has cynically exploited the good nature of most of his followers and mobilized a selected hierarchy of them to help him achieve his ends. A trusting nature can be a great personal asset, but under the influence of a narcissistic and dishonest persuader like Benhayon, it’s extremely hazardous.
Explanation of UM’s conversion process and Benhayon’s thought reform methods should go some way to explaining the striking personality changes witnessed by loved ones. While it’s always healthy to examine one’s role and responsibility in relationship breakdowns, Benhayon has been a critical factor in relationship ruptures that might have otherwise been avoided. It might help some loved ones to know that the rejection they have suffered is less personal reason than they think.
Other posts in this thought reforme series explore Benhayon’s deceptions, particularly in light of my own experience, and a more detailed analysis of the regime Serge uses to perpetuate dissociative states and enforce dependency and dread.
References from Tobias, M.L. & Lalich, J. 1994, Captive Hearts Captive Minds; Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships, Hunter House, Alameda.
Universal Medicine is Habit Forming, Part 2: Dissociation & Deception – face to face with Serge
Part 3: Healing as a front for deception, manipulation & control
Part 4: Dependency & Dread – a day in the life