When I first met Serge Benhayon he portrayed himself as caring, considerate and empathetic. At first I thought he was interested in assisting my wellbeing, but I soon found he was merely seeking to recruit. The following is the first part of an analysis of the dissociative techniques and deceptions I experienced seven years ago.
(Apologies everyone for the length of these posts, however, I think it important to provide as much detail as possible. Apart from informing those affected by UM, we have among our readers mental health professionals and scholars of cult dynamics who are interested in any observations we can share.)
The following is the first of three posts, expanding on an earlier summary of Universal Medicine’s cult recruitment and conversion process.
Manipulating the faithful
In upcoming posts I’ll be discussing techniques used by Serge to mislead, deceive, manipulate, implant suggestions and hypnotize. I should make it clear a person can’t be hypnotized against their will, nor can they be forced via hypnosis to perform extreme acts that go against their conscience. (*Update: See note at bottom of page.) However, the American psychiatrist and clinical hypnotherapist, Milton Erickson, insisted everyone is susceptible to hypnotic manipulation. (Waterfield, 2003, p.37) What I will argue is that Serge portrays himself so successfully as the loving, gentle, healer/messiah he is able to persuade and manipulate followers into a state of full surrender, where they willingly fall under his control, blind to his sinister intentions. The ensuing personality changes lead them to adopt inappropriate attitudes and to behave in ways which in the past would have been extremely out of character. For instance, rejecting loved ones and neglecting their own children under the false impression they are performing acts of ‘self loving’, which is shorthand for serving Serge’s wishes.
I wasn’t exactly fighting fit when I first encountered Serge. I’d just completed 12 years of study, including several years in a cult like professional environment where I’d worked unpaid for what I thought was the greater good, only to be rewarded with derision and abuse from the people profiting from my efforts. Ironically, like Universal Medicine practitioners, those people also believed themselves to be healers, albeit qualified ones, regardless of the fact they intentionally damaged the livelihoods, health and dignity of myself and other students.
I was worn down, exhausted and depressed, and when a friend who was also a health practitioner recommended I see Serge, the ‘healer’, for some special treatment I initially baulked. The title of ‘healer’ is one I’d come to regard with suspicion (these days it’s out and out contempt, particularly in the light of Universal Medicine’s harmful hijinks), but my friend assured me Serge was ‘cool’.
I’ll agree, he was ‘cool’ on first appearances – personable, healthy looking. He would have been 40 then. I remember him walking straight up to me in the waiting room at Pineapple Rd, smiling, friendly and with a direct, front on approach, which I see now as somewhat unusual – standing square in front of me, not so close I felt unbearably uncomfortable, but closer than a complete stranger would usually stand.
Other characteristics which were immediately apparent, and are vital to his deception were his relaxed, calm and gentle manner and his confidence. Serge’s confidence in full flight isn’t a feisty extraversion, rather a sense of placid self assurance, as if he has all the answers and everything is going to be fine. At that stage, he wasn’t claiming to be a famous reincarnation, but I was to learn in the weeks and months ahead that he claimed to have psychic ability, including the ability to channel higher powers.
Dissociative techniques in the first treatment sessions
I’ve already described in earlier posts my initial treatment sessions with Serge, but it bears repeating. The treatment consisted of me laying fully clothed on a treatment table in a treatment room, alone with him. He placed his hands on various non erogenous parts of my body and asked me to empty my mind. Because I’ve had a long interest in healing, medicine and spirituality, and have read and travelled widely in those realms, I put up no resistance to the treatment and was genuinely interested to see what would happen.
I was told by my friend prior to the sessions, Serge would lay on hands and I would feel certain affects. I was given no more information than that, but that had already planted a suggestion of a physical reaction, which I was quite interested in.
Before the treatment I explained to Serge how I was feeling and gave him a brief account of the factors causing me stress. He listened carefully and responded with great sympathy. I don’t remember what was said when he commenced treatment and lay on hands. I vaguely remember he was silent, except for the request that I still my mind and not think. After some time with his hands on me, and I don’t have any idea how long (loss of sense of time is a symptom of dissociation) I began to physically react, starting with twitching, moving into trembling, deepening of breathing and intensifying into shaking and quaking with something like convulsions. I began hyperventilating and to speak in tongues. I remember, in spite of the strong response, deciding to surrender to it and allowing the catharsis to go where it would, while at the same time reminding myself to follow the instructions, to keep my mind empty, not to think.
Throughout the reaction, Serge kept his hands steadily on me with no change to pressure. I believe he stayed silent for that part of the treatment and I remember his presence as steady and non reactive.
I’ve since attempted to investigate the origins of his technique, and I believe it was taught to him by his Uruguayan ‘aunt’, aka the burping priestess I encountered at his workshop and yoga study group. It appears to be a shamanistic technique, and may be of South American origin, but could also come from some of the mystical Jewish traditions, reflecting Serge’s Jewish heritage. Perhaps it’s a hybrid.
After experiencing that strong physical catharsis, I repeated it in the next couple of sessions, and again at the Esoteric Healing workshop I attended – at the hands of other students. Each time, I followed instructions and surrendered to the process, and did my best to keep my mind clear of thought.
I don’t know how long I had the physical reaction for during each session. The sessions were an hour long, and most of that hour was spent on the physical hands on technique. Once I reached a certain crescendo of response, Serge would then talk me down, telling me to slow my breathing, so that I could then return to a state of calm and relative stillness.
In terms of dissociation (the induction of an altered state of consciousness), the technique could be regarded as a form of hypnosis, in that my attention was focussed on the trance or catharsis induction process, and normal cognitive processes were shut down. In such a state of passivity, alertness is lowered and one’s means of orienting themselves in reality fades. Such dissociative states enhance the potential for suggestibility, with lowered critical ability and raised tolerance for incongruous ideas (Waterfield, 2003, p.xxvii).
Once calmed, Serge then spoke to me of the professional experiences that had been the cause of much stress. However, rather than talk to me in realistic terms of the complex interaction between personalities in hierarchical groups, he attributed my experience to reliving conflicts from past lives.
Past lives aren’t something I’m interested in. This lifetime is enough of a handful, but I found myself relating to what Serge was saying – how I’d been an exiled Samurai warrior or a tortured and executed archangel, and that I’d been unfairly persecuted – if only because I found it to be an apt metaphor.
In terms of deception and manipulation, several things were happening. Firstly, ideas that I would normally think of as worthless became more acceptable. I attribute that to my post cathartic suggestibility, combined with Serge’s ingratiatingly easy manner, his willingness to sympathize with my situation and his confident delivery in a smooth and gentle tone of voice. Such mannerisms are hallmarks of the most successful manipulators and are routinely used in certain sales techniques (Waterfield, 2003, p.370).
The other questionable therapeutic tack was that Serge took my story on face value. At no point did he consider I may have had some role in the conflict with the former group. Perhaps he’s an abnormally astute judge of character, lol, but I doubt it. His haste to share my concerns and ingratiate himself was a danger sign I missed at first. A responsible (and trained) therapist may be sympathetic, but remains impartial, and is cognisant of the complexity of individual personalities within interpersonal relationships. They won’t automatically assume you are blameless. In addition, Serge removed my experience from current or present reality, and related it to an abstract past. In so doing, it exonerated me from any responsibility for my situation and played into Serge’s recruitment technique that presumes the recruit or student is one of the chosen, literally ‘angels’, and that our bad experiences are attributable to invisible external enemies, forces of ignorance and evil that persecute us throughout our many reincarnations and through every plane of existence – rather than a bit of petty backbiting and garden-variety crappy behaviour.
In effect, he was at once inviting me to join his tribe, relegating my dilemma into the mystical and thereby bypassing any potential to reality test his reading of the situation, and beginning to push his essentially divisive, black and white view of the world, where those compliant with his interests are regarded as good, and anyone counter to his aim of fame and profit is PRANIC! (evil) .
In less academic terms, from the first session, Serge was exploiting the strongly disorienting affect of the hands on treatment to commence indoctrination. It’s a method he then intensifies and expands upon.
Serge the salesman
I did feel a bit better after Serge’s treatment – able to breathe easier and more relaxed. Having said that, I also hadn’t taken a holiday in years, so it’s likely I may have had the same affect from taking a few swims down at Byron and making friends with a hammock. I also had symptoms from a longer term condition, but they didn’t change with Serge’s treatment.
In spite of that, the cathartic nature of the treatment fascinated me. It was a strong reaction and unlike any therapy or technique I’d come across in my travels. Also, it was nice to have some sympathy and the gentle, caring attention Serge showed, and he seemed well versed in spirituality and healing, so I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt when he began to work his sales techniques.
First I found myself buying ‘Ponder On This’, a book of overworked theosophical balderdash by Alice Bailey which I later hurled into a dumpster and a Chris James CD, which I’ve not listened to and is currently serving as a coaster beneath my bizenyaki tumbler of fine quality arabica.
On reflection and after doing some research, I’ve concluded Serge uses an Ericksonian (again, the hypnotherapist) sales technique, using a ‘gentle form of conversational hypnosis’, designed to get around the target’s resistance.
…talking to the target person in a particular way – you play on his suggestibility. The technique is roughly as follows. You set up expectations (You’re going to love what this washing powder can do!’); enthusiasm and genuine sincerity are helpful at this stage. It’s not just mechanical: you are establishing what in the nineteenth century used to be called rapport or trust with your ‘prospect’…Mirroring his body language is said to help at this stage. Discreetly emphasizing certain words (eg. ‘love’…) embeds them in the customer’s unconscious and guides his thinking. Indirect suggestions help: rather than suggesting straight out that he buy the product, you ask him whether he’s satisfied with the whiteness of his current wash. The result is that the customer ends up thinking: ‘I wasn’t sold this product. It was my idea.’ (Waterfield, pp.369-70)
How similar this sounds to the lovebloggers fervent insistence ‘Serge never tells all of us what to do. We all behave, think and talk the same way, using the same words, and have ended up in the same boat because we’ve chosen to.’
Salespeople learn the techniques (of Ericksonian hypnosis) and sprinkle key words and tones of voice and body language into their pitch until the ‘prospect’ is effectively in a light trance…Ericksonian hypnotherapy empowers the patient by making the choice to get well effectively up to him. Pseudo-Ericksonian selling parodies this by having the customer think the choice is up to him. (Waterfield, p.370-71)
Voila! Serge Benhayon.
I wish I could remember the exact words Serge used when selling me various stuff – the book, the CD, the Esoteric Healing Workshop, more therapy sessions. All I remember is that he verbally minimized my need for them and said things like ‘it’s up to you, you don’t have to buy them’. I didn’t realize Alice Bailey was a theosophy offshoot until I’d bought the book and started reading, otherwise I wouldn’t have wasted the money. I don’t remember how Serge alerted me to the book. It must have been lying around the clinic somewhere, and at that stage I thought he had some interesting ideas. I remember him saying something like ‘oh yes, this is a book I get a lot out of (the understatement of the century), you might find it interesting or you might not…’
But, incidentally, I found this chestnut while skimming some EDG notes that have found their way to the UMA bunker. Here, Serge is calling for donations to help with the $2 million mortgage on the Brisbane esoteric healing clinic which ‘requires ongoing donations for another 2-3 years’ (now that’s a fast track mortgage repayment), as well as a building fund for student accommodation and, for the love of God or someone, ‘the first esoteric nursing home’. Seeing Sergecorp is so hard done by and so terribly deficient in profits:
Donations of any size can be made depending on whether you can afford it. Don’t donate because you feel you have to, everybody else is, etc. etc. Feel if you wish to support the growth of the work in this way and do it anonymously. (EDG Notes August 21, 2010, taken by Michael Dixon. Thanks Michael 😉 Emphasis mine.
As the Wikipedia entry on Milton Erickson handily states: The conscious mind recognizes negation in speech (“Don’t do X”) but according to Erickson, the unconscious mind pays more attention to the “X” than the injunction “Don’t do”. Erickson thus used this as the basis for suggestions that deliberately played on negation and tonally marked the important wording, to provide that whatever the client did, it was beneficial.
Serge Benhayon the bullshitter
This subject probably deserves a blog of its own, or at least it’s own post, but I’ll relate a little anecdote about Serge’s compulsive and highly profitable bullshitting.
I’d had one or two treatments with Serge and he talked me into attending a yoga study session, as I’ve related before, where he said it would be just him ‘and a few people’, which turned out to be 60-100 folks up there at St Helena, where the Bay FM headquarters apparently are. I realized he was starting a cult for sure when I saw him manning the sales table with a few of the Brides of Serge, flogging stacks of the Alice Bailey book I’d bought the day before. When the meeting finally started, which he reckoned would be a study of the Patanjali Yoga sutra, he reckoned he’d been ‘channelling’ Patanjali. The ‘channelling’, however, was neither spooky, exciting or convincing; it was just Serge talking his usual incoherent, jargon laden bullshit.
Anyway, I’d told him I’d worked as a translator, and part of his sales schtick is ingratiation and an over emphasis on mutual interests. So when he was trying to talk me into attending the study group, he said he was ‘translating’ the Patanjali sutra. ‘Cool,’ I thought, and I said to him, ‘oh, so you speak Sanskrit?’
Serge smiled, looked away, gave a light laugh and changed the subject.
I’d be surprised if he’s ever clapped eyes on the Patanjali sutra.
He gave the same response when I asked him if he was psychic during the dreaded ‘ovarian reading’ session.
Note to observers, that’s his standard response when his bullshit is challenged. He’ll never own up, and he’ll never give you a straight ‘no’. Even if you’re a Courier Mail journalist waving his bankruptcy document in his face. Smile, avoid eye contact, light laugh, try and change the subject.
I can conclude from my face to face encounters with Serge, he uses charm, the dissociative or trance inducing potential of the hands on healing techniques, Ericksonian or ‘conversational hypnosis’ sales techniques and out and out bullshit to lure new recruits.
In the next post, the deception continues into his attempt at ‘reading’ my ovaries, and into the Sacred Esoteric Healing Workshops. The final post in the series will look at the anecdotal evidence I’ve gathered which reveals the high pressure thought reform techniques that consolidate dependency in his followers.
* Stage hypnotist Derren Brown performed experiments where individuals were influenced to perform acts against their conscience. In one experiment he hypnotized a man to assassinate Stephen Fry. In another a man confessed to a murder he didn’t commit. More Derren Brown on the links page.
Waterfield, R, 2003, Hidden Depths: The Story of Hypnosis, Brunner Routledge, New York, Hove.