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AS WE HAVE SEEN, a common set of alleged problems, even expressed in nearly identical words, tend to occur in our world’s spiritual communities. Indeed, the reported characteristics observed are essentially independent of the specific beliefs espoused by the community, and of the historical time and place in which the spiritual leader and his disciples have existed.

Why would that be?

A large part of the answer surely comes from well-known research done at Stanford University in the early 1970s. There, Dr. Philip Zimbardo—later, president of the American Psychological Association—was able to inadvertently transform a group of “healthy, intelligent, middle-class” college-age individuals into “fearful, depressed, neurotic, suicidal shadows” in less than a week. He did that simply by arbitrarily assigning them (via the flip of a coin) to guard/prisoner roles in a simulated prison environment which they all knew was just an experiment.

The dozen guards were given no specific training, but were rather allowed, within limits, to create their own rules to “maintain law and order” within the prison, and to “command the respect of the prisoners” (Zimbardo, 2004; italics added).

Each of the dozen prisoners had been assigned a number in place of his name upon entering, and was referred to only by that number, in a tactic designed to make him feel anonymous and to dissociate him from his pre-incarceration identity. That is, he was not to have that past as a guide for how to behave, or as a reference for what would be appropriate treatment of himself, for instance.

Monks and sannyasis are, of course, frequently subjected to a similar change of name. In Rajneesh’s ashrams, as an extreme example, that was often effected within mere days (or less) of the individual’s acceptance of Bhagwan as a teacher, even for persons not entering into long-term residence there. (Uniforms—e.g., of Rajneesh’s saffron-wearing “orange” followers—have the same effect of “deindividuation” on their wearers.)

Living among strangers who do not know your name or history ... dressed in a uniform exactly like all other prisoners [or monks], not wanting to call attention to one’s self because of the unpredictable consequences it might provoke [with those being given as “discipline for one’s ego,” in the ashram]—all led to a weakening of self-identity among the prisoners (Haney, et al., 1973).

Following a brief rebellion on the second day of the Stanford incarceration, solidarity among the prisoners was broken. That was done via the psychological tactic of designating a “privileged cell” for “good prisoners,” whose inhabitants could exercise freedoms which were not given to the inmates of the other cells.

Comparable residence in privileged rooms/houses, or increased access to the guru-figure, is often given in ashrams to disciples who are the most loyal in following the rules set down by their guru and other superiors. Indeed, Milne (1986), Tarlo (1997) and van der Braak (2003) have all described exactly that dynamic, alleged to occur under Rajneesh and Cohen. Comparable promotions and demotions have also been reported in Adi Da’s community. In SRF, by comparison, residence in the “power center” of Mount Washington is valued over “banishment” to their ancillary temples in Hollywood, Hidden Valley, or India.

In attempting to break the will of their prisoners, Zimbardo’s guards resorted to the non-violent humiliation of them.

In any ashram, the comparable humiliation is done with the stated intention of killing the residents’ “unspiritual” egos. In practice, however, it kills their closely related individual wills (i.e., their self-esteem and independence) as well.

After a few days, “parole hearings” were held in the simulated prison. There, prisoners were given the option of being released in return for their forfeiting of the money they had earned. Most of them agreed to that deal ... but then returned to their cells while the parole board considered their requests. That behavior came in spite of the fact that, by simply quitting the experiment, they could have gotten exactly the same financial result.

Why would they have behaved so? In Zimbardo’s (2004) explanation, it was because they “felt powerless to resist,” being trapped in a “psychological prison” which they could not leave without the approval of the relevant authorities there.

When a disciple attempts to leave an ashram after a long-term stay, or to sever ties with a “divinely guided guru,” it is often only after having played the disciple/prisoner role for many years. Psychologically, then, having bought deeply into that role, he cannot leave without the permission or blessing of the guru. The latter is then equivalent to the superintendent and parole board, holding the keys to “salvation” or release from the prison (of the ashram, and of maya or delusion.)

To thus depart, further, is typically equated with “falling from the spiritual path.” To leave, therefore, is to weakly sell out the reasons why one entered the ashram in the first place. That is, it is to fail at one’s own enlightenment, the “only thing that really matters.” Or worse:

I am just temporarily in the throes of my ego, they say, and I shouldn’t throw away my one chance in this lifetime for enlightenment (van der Braak, 2003).
Eckists [i.e., followers of the Eckankar religion] are warned that when they drop out their spiritual growth stops, and they are at the mercy of the Kal, or the negative force of the universe (Bellamy, 1995).
[P]otential devotees make a binding vow of eternal devotion to Adi Da—before actually being allowed to be in [his] presence.... [Adi Da’s followers] claim that breaking the vow will result in far more than seven lifetimes of bad luck (in Bob, 2000).
We’d been told if you leave Poolesville and Jetsunma, you go to Vajra hell.... You are crushed and burned and chopped up over and over again, it repeats. You are there for eternity (in Sherrill, 2000).
The Buddhist hell sounds as vicious as the Christian version—with torture by molten iron, fire and disembowelment (Macdonald, 2003).

It is rather shocking to thus discover that Tibetan Buddhism, for one, has fear-based means of keeping its disciples loyally following their gurus, which are every bit as harsh as the Bible Belt visions of hell.

Consider, further, that the Christian view of eternal punishment has long been viewed by psychologists as leading to a rigidity in thought and behavior on the part of the relevant believers. It has also been seen as producing a “missionary zeal,” whereby persons concerned about their own salvation would project those fears onto others, and need to convert them in order to allay their own doubts. If that long-asserted dynamic is valid for the Christian view, however, it must apply just as well to the Buddhist perspective. That is, it must produce related behaviors, with “loyalty to the guru” substituted for “faith in Jesus Christ,” and a pressure on one’s fellow disciples to maintain their own rigid obedience to the master then standing in for the Christian attempt to convert “heathens” and ensure that the converts remain loyal.

Conversely, if Christian blind belief can create an Inquisition, so too equally could the standard Buddhist (“Tibetan Catholic”) teachings. For there, the breaking of the savior-disciple bond, as with other “sins,” generates punishments to delight the Marquis de Sade.

Thus, the state of mind apparently evinced by the lama in charge of the Karmapa’s seat in Tibet, in explaining to Lama Ole Nydahl what the purported effects of his (Nydahl’s) breaking of the guru-disciple vow would be, becomes both understandable and completely predictable:

Although by title a Buddhist teacher, the venerable Drubpoen Dechen sounded as though he had come straight out of the Catholic middle ages. He would have also probably felt quite at home with the Holy Inquisition, since his letter, in spirit and context, seemed to have been the product of this notable institution (Lehnert, 1998).

Similarly, from its beginnings, the giving of money and food to begging Buddhist monks, like the indulgence scams of the Roman Catholic Church, was a way for wealthy patrons to purchase merit, redeemable for their own future good (Downing, 2001).

Of course, as always, one could avoid many of the problems arising from such teachings simply by not believing too much of what one has been told in the first place:

A man, worried about the gruesome Tibetan Buddhist teachings of the hell realms, wants to know what Tenzin Palmo thinks happens after death....
[Palmo:] “I once tackled a lama about it as by his definition I was definitely going there [i.e., to hell]. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ he laughed while slapping me on the back. ‘We only say that to get people to behave themselves’” (Mackenzie, 1999).

The fact that Buddhism includes “proof-delivering meditation” in its path is actually irrelevant in all of this. For, that in no way offsets the blind belief inherent in the claimed necessity of keeping the guru-disciple vow, where the punishment for breaking that vow is to be cast into Vajra hell or the like. East or West, southern U.S. or northern India/Tibet, agrarian or postindustrial, all makes absolutely no difference. Rather, the fear of long-term punishment will produce exactly the same rigid reactions, and inability to walk away from toxic situations, in the East as in the West. The universal nature of known psychological structures and dynamics throughout the human species guarantees this.

When [alleged] cult leaders tell the public, “Members are free to leave any time they want; the door is open,” they give the impression that members have free will and are simply choosing to stay. Actually, members may not have a real choice, because they have been indoctrinated to have a phobia of the outside world. Induced phobias eliminate the psychological possibility of a person choosing to leave the group merely because he is unhappy or wants to do something else (Hassan, 1990).

That is, individuals in so-called cults who have been taught that bad things will happen to them should they leave will be no more “free” to exit those environments than someone who is petrified of the water would be “free” to go swimming.

Father [i.e., Jim Jones] kept my treasonous thoughts in check by warning us that leaving the church would bring bad karma. He reminded us in his sermons that those who had chosen to join were here because we were on the verge of crossing over to the next plane. Without his help, we would not make it. Those who left or betrayed the Cause in any way would be reincarnated as the lowest life form on Earth and it would take us another hundred thousand years to get to this point again (Layton, 1998).

And that differs from Trungpa’s traditional “pursuing disasters/furies” how, exactly? Conceptually, and in terms of its effect, it differs not at all.

Further regarding leaving: When one of the subjects (#819) in Zimbardo’s study was labeled as a “bad prisoner” by his fellow inmates after being removed from his cell, he broke down into hysterical tears. When Zimbardo suggested that they leave the experimental area, however, the subject refused, explicitly preferring to return to the prison, in spite of feeling sick and even while sobbing uncontrollably, to prove to his compatriots that he was not the bad prisoner they accused him of being. (When Zimbardo pointedly reminded the man that he was a subject in an experiment, not a real prisoner, he quickly stopped crying, and looked up “like a small child awakened from a nightmare.”)

Disciples stay in ashrams, in part, exactly for feeling the same need to prove that they are not being bad or disloyal to the guru-figure and his inner circle of “spiritually advanced” beings. No one wants to be a “bad disciple,” after all, when “the guru is God.”

* * *

An incident from Ken Wilber’s life may serve to further drive home the aforementioned difficulty of leaving psychological “prisons.”

Wilber’s second wife, Treya, suffered her first bout with breast cancer in the mid-1980s. During and following that period, their unspoken resentments toward each other, deriving from that stress, caused their relationship, and Wilber’s own life in general, to deteriorate to the point where he was consuming alcohol to the tune of over twenty drinks a day, every day. He was further doing little else but lethargically watching television; and feeling depressed, not caring whether or not he ever wrote another book. At the lowest point of that spite, he actually went out gun-shopping, intending to end his own life (Wilber, 1991).

Rationally, however, Wilber could have walked away from that situation at any time. All that he ever had to do was to get into his car and drive, and never look back. He had his book royalties, his high reputation in transpersonal psychology—starting over without his wife would, rationally, have been so easy. In the absolute worst fallout from that, after all, he would have owed her half of their house and half of his book royalties in a divorce settlement, getting his own life back in return.

To his mindset at that time, however, there was obviously simply “no way out” for him from his misery. Rather, suicide evidently looked “easier” to him than either attempting to fix the problem or simply walking away from that prison, from which there was apparently “no escape.”

By comparison, disciples more often than not “fall in love” with guru-figures who, in the long run, do nothing but make their lives miserable. The one-sided attempts to untangle the ingrown emotional codependencies as the relationship crashes, then, place even greater constraints on the doubting disciple than for any secular, romantic relationship. Thus, it is in no way easy there to “just leave.” Indeed, such abandonment would again be equated not merely with “falling out of love”—a plight for which there is an easy remedy. Rather, one must deal with the guilt of feeling disloyal to the god-man guru, and with the fallout from “leaving the spiritual path”—perhaps for incarnations.

Most [so-called] cult members feel depressed during the first few months of post-cult life. Some compare the experience to falling head-over-heels in love, only to realize that their lover was two-faced and just using them. Others liken their involvement to a spiritual rape of their soul (Hassan, 2000).
Losing one’s [alleged] cult is like losing the love of one’s life. The lover has lied to you, but the lover is oh so seductive and satisfying, and submission is so thrilling (in Bellamy, 1995).
Belief in a guru, while it persists, entirely overrules rational judgment. Dedicated disciples are as impervious to reason as are infatuated lovers....
[T]he person who becomes a disciple “falls for” a particular guru without being able to distinguish between dross and gold. The process is equivalent to falling in love, or to the occurrence of “transference” in psychotherapy. None of us is immune to such phenomena (Storr, 1996; italics added).
I never questioned Bhagwan’s insistence on surrender. One surrenders to a lover joyously, willingly. It’s only when the love affair ends that you notice the paunchy jowls and sagging muscles, the cruelties and indifference, and suspicion creeps in (Franklin, 1992).
Seen from a certain perspective, my time with Andrew [Cohen] was a botched love affair (van der Braak, 2003).

It may be difficult to walk away from a romantic partner who was once “the center of your life,” on whom you could rely even when you had nowhere else to turn. Imagine, then, how much harder it would be to walk away from a “god,” regardless of how much that figure may be causing you anguish on a daily basis.

I can’t describe the depth of pain I experienced in considering the possibility that the one I had loved absolutely might be less than what a God ought to be (Underwood and Underwood, 1979).

Not surprisingly, then, given all that, numerous former monks have admitted to feeling depressed and suicidal within their ashram/prison cells.

Wilber did later leave for San Francisco, “with or without” his wife, but only after having regretfully hit her in response to an argument they were having. Disciples who have finally, after much soul-searching, walked out of an ashram to end a promised life-long stay, could frequently point to a similar “can’t get any worse” incident, which finally brought them to their senses, and made them realize that simply leaving was a preferable option to suicide.

* * *

Even among lower animals, lacking obeisance to a purported deity-in-the-flesh, the inability to take the simple steps which would lessen their own pain, in exiting from a harmful environment, has long been known. That knowledge has come in large part via Martin Seligman’s experiments in the mid-’70s, in which animals were given electric shocks in an environment where they could not escape that mistreatment.

At first the animals fought, tried to get away, and uttered cries of pain or anger. Then they sank into listlessness and despair. Later on, in a second set of experiments, the same animals were shocked again—only this time, by pressing a certain lever or completing some other simple task, they could stop the electric current. But they made no effort to do so.
The animals had learned to be helpless. Due to their previous experiences, even when a means of escape from the pain was provided, these animals were too defeated, perhaps defeated neurologically, to take the simple action that would end their suffering (Matsakis, 1996).

Being forcibly stripped in public against one’s pleas to stop, or coerced into often-violent individual or group sex (with or without a “church’s dildo collection”), or into psychologically incestuous sex with the guru-figure, would obviously qualify as shock or trauma by any reasonable definition. So too would Rajneesh’s violent humanistic encounter groups, even for people who knew going in that they might suffer broken bones or be raped.

To a more chronic degree, though, much of the emotional violence and psychological abuse reportedly perpetrated in the name of “ego-killing discipline,” as a betrayal of trust and widely recognized “spiritual rape,” would also qualify as trauma. Indeed, Tarlo’s (1997) and van der Braak’s (2003) stories of alleged discipline at Cohen’s hands are nothing if not descriptions of repeated emotional trauma/shocks, humiliation and degradation. Further, those occurred in an “intimate or bonded relationship” with the guru-figure, which they could not escape without being “bad disciples” or “failures.” And wherever there is such inescapable trauma, one will find instances of both “learned helplessness” and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Thus, “crazy wisdom” or “Rude Boy” environments in particular cannot help but be breeding grounds for exactly those ailments.

Further, working efficiently at one’s assigned ashram tasks, and taking initiative to coordinate others’ activities with that, will alternately get one highly praised for serving “the Guru’s work” well, and then severely criticized for overstepping one’s bounds and having “a big head.” Such an environment—in the tension between serving the guru-figure efficiently, but not “too efficiently/egoically”—is at least halfway to being rife with psychological double binds. For there, one cannot know in advance how to gain the approval of one’s guru-figure and other “superiors”—when, as every sad dog knows, securing the approval of the master is all that matters.

Should there be craftsmen in the monastery, let them exercise their crafts with all humility and reverence, if the Abbot so command. But if one of them grow proud because of the knowledge of his craft, in that he seem to confer some benefit on the monastery, let such a one be taken away from this craft and not practice it again, unless perchance, after he has humbled himself, the Abbot may bid him resume it (Saint Benedict, in [Goffman, 1961]).

Or, as Janja Lalich (2004) described her own experiences in a “political cult”:

Militants were expected to “take initiative,” within the bounds of discipline; yet the reality of their everyday lives gave them very little of consequence to make decisions about. Eventually, a militant who thought she was taking initiative would be “reined in” and criticized for “careerism,” “grandstanding,” “factionalizing,” or a variety of other charges that served to stifle further efforts at independent action and to set an example for others.

Thus, one is reduced to simply guessing which course of action one should take, without knowing whether it will garner exultant praise or harsh blame. (Failing to take sufficient initiative would be no escape from that, rather placing one in exactly the same position. That is, for a given set of moderate actions, one might be praised for “knowing one’s place” ... or harshly upbraided for not doing one’s job.) One possible extreme reaction to such long-term binds is again violent neurosis, from “trying too hard.” The other is severe depression in which, since one cannot predict the results of one’s actions or find a reliable way to succeed or to win approval, one simply stops trying at all. Thus, one moves about purposelessly and only in response to others’ explicit orders (cf. Haney, et al., 1973).

* * *

It is indeed the most independent disciples who are the most likely to leave any ashram, as the SRF postulant ashram administrator noted. For, they will be the quickest to figure out that they need to get the hell out of there, for their own mental and physical health. The independent ones and those with integrity (guided by some clarity of sight, as opposed to the “idiot integrity” we have previously seen) are thus always “evaporating off.” Consequently, the concentration of pathology or pollution in the environment will only increase as time goes by. And the long-term dependent/obedient prisoners then get promoted to guard (or inner-circle disciple) status, demanding obedience and respect from all those below them.

Some individuals are indeed able to leave any such closed environment, via independence and/or outside contact, in spite of the fact that neither of those are ever encouraged in our world’s ashrams. That, however, again does not in any way mean that the ones who stay have the same choice, and might simply be making a different, equally rational decision.

Ram Dass himself, interestingly,

compared his own experience [with Joya] to what invariably occurs in [so-called] cults. “Once you are in them, they provide a total reality which has no escape clause,” he wrote (Schwartz, 1996).

Any reality with “no escape clause” would obviously not be an easy one to simply walk away from.

I can’t express the amount of relief I feel about being rescued by my parents [from the Moonies]. I know I could never have left on my own. It’s hard for anybody outside of the experience to understand the depth of that (Underwood and Underwood, 1979; italics added).

Recall, further, the dangerous idea that as long as people entering a “crazy wisdom” environment know what they are getting themselves into, that path may still work to the benefit of the disciples, rather than acting to destroy them. All of the participants in Zimbardo’s study, however, believed that they knew exactly what they were getting themselves involved with. Indeed, they signed consent forms which are today posted online, after having been fully informed as to the nature of the study (Zimbardo, 2004). Further, as prisoners, they explicitly expected to have little or no privacy, to be kept under surveillance, and to have their civil rights violated (Haney, et al., 1973).

Nevertheless, that knowledge did not help those peons when faced with their bored and respect-extracting guards. Nor did it make it any easier for them to “just leave” that environment, or even to simply object to the treatment they were receiving from their authority figures:

In only a few days, [one-third of] our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress (Zimbardo, 2004).

Tarlo (1997) described similar behaviors, which she claims to have seen within Cohen’s community:

There was an inappropriate sadistic flavor to these [verbal] attacks on Sarah [as the house scapegoat].

Likewise, in Rajneesh’s ashrams:

[S]omehow the ego bashing [as instructed by Bhagwan’s “guard” Sheela, who made no recorded claims to enlightenment] seemed to be getting more severe, almost sadistic (Hamilton, 1998).

Consider also the reported mistreatment of children in Irish Catholic institutional schools, being frequently harshly beaten “for everything and for nothing,” without even knowing why they were being hit so mercilessly:

Survivors describe a wide range of weapons used to beat them on all parts of their bodies—whips, cat-o-nine-tails, leathers, belts, straps, canes, sticks, tree branches, chair legs, hose pipes, rubber tires and hurley sticks. Many of the leathers used had been reinforced by having pieces of metal or lead sown into them.... One former inmate remembers a [monastic] brother who used to freeze his leather in order to make it harder and consequently more painful.... Violence was an intrinsic part of the culture of these institutions—its aim and often its effect was the systematic and thorough destruction of the will of each and every boy and girl (Raftery and O’Sullivan, 2001; italics added).

A former male resident of St. Joseph’s Industrial School in Letterfrack, Ireland, later enlisted in the army and was captured by the Germans in WWII. Yet, he observed that “compared to Letterfrack, the German prisoner of war camp was like a tea party” (Raftery and O’Sullivan, 2001).

In the spiritual world, sadistic or “Rude Boy” mistreatment may be daftly viewed as being a “good thing,” for supposedly acting to “kill one’s ego.” But no one’s psychology ever changes magically simply for having passed through the ashram gates. Thus, the long-term negative effects of such reported cruelties are going to be exactly the same in “spiritual” contexts as in the kinder “real world.”

* * *

Several days into Zimbardo’s study, a standby prisoner (#416) was admitted to the prison, without having experienced the gradual escalation of harassment which the other inmates had.

Following #416’s attempts to force his own release, via a hunger strike, from what the “old-timers” assured him was an inescapable “real prison,” he was thrown into solitary confinement. Through all that, he was seen not as a hero but rather as a troublemaker by the existing, veteran prisoners. Indeed, most of them preferred to leave him in solitary confinement rather than give up their blankets to secure his release from that punishment, in trade.

That treatment exactly parallels the ostracism which any independent or “disloyal” (i.e., troublemaking) disciple who breaks the rules set by his superiors or guru-figure will face in the ashram environment:

I’m living proof of why you better not speak out.... The degree to which I was scapegoated publicly was most effective in keeping everyone else quiet (Yvonne Rand, in [Downing, 2001]).

Conversely, a former novice—Patricia Burke Brogan, now a celebrated playwright—in the Irish Catholic Sisters of Mercy noted of her own experience in that congregation:

What defined you as a good nun [in a hierarchy of senior nuns and novices] was that you obeyed the rules. There were the three vows—poverty, chastity and obedience. But if you were obedient, that covered everything (in Raftery and O’Sullivan, 2001).

A nun in the Franciscan (Catholic) Poor Clare order expressed a comparable attitude (in Goffman, 1961):

This is another of the marvels of living in obedience. No one is ever doing anything more important than you are, if you are obeying.

Should you fail to obey, though, prepare to be punished, not merely by your superiors but even by your peers:

If you ... did not obey the rules of the group [in the Moonies], love and approval would be withdrawn (Hassan, 2000).

Or, consider the experiences of a female disciple of Chögyam Trungpa’s, who once disobediently dumped a bottle of glue into the guru’s hair, in anger.

She was subsequently ostracized by the Boulder Buddhist community, beaten up by several women of the community, and left to shift for herself and her out-of-wedlock child, she claims (Clark, 1980).

When the same woman left the community, intending to continue practicing the master’s teachings, Trungpa fiercely told her: “The lions will come to devour you.”

“I personally found that I was punished when I didn’t want to go to bed with Trungpa after he asked me to,” she says. The “punishment,” apparently, comes in the form of psychological rejection (Clark, 1980).
* * *

By the end of Zimbardo’s study, four of his twelve prisoners had experienced “extreme emotional depression, crying, rage and acute anxiety,” to the point of needing to be removed from the study for their own good. (Those breakdowns were later interpreted by the experimenters as being a “passive way of demanding attention and help.” Still, they were certainly real to the persons experiencing them, regardless of what the subconscious motivations might have been.) A fifth developed a psychosomatic rash on portions of his body (Haney, et al., 1973).

The prisoners who adapted better to the situation were those who mindlessly followed orders and who allowed the guards to dehumanize and degrade them ever more with each passing day and night (Zimbardo, 2004b).
Compared with those who had to be released, prisoners who remained in prison until the termination of the study ... scored higher on conformity (“acceptance of society as it is”) (Haney, et al., 1973).
On a psychological test designed to reveal a person’s authoritarianism, those prisoners who had the highest scores were best able to function in this authoritarian prison environment (Zimbardo, et al., 1973).

Dr. Zimbardo further characterized the prisoners in general, by the end of the experiment, as simply “hanging on ... much like hospitalized mental patients,” blindly obeying the commands of their guards.

Loyal, beaten-down disciples, of course, “hang on” in much the same way. And, as the SRF monk implicitly noted, the ones who stay and adapt the best are, more often than not, exactly the ones who are able to “mindlessly follow orders,” being free of the “delusive evil” of independence. Further, as judged by their high authoritarianism scores in Zimbardo’s study, those order-following ones are the very same individuals who most enjoy sitting in authority over others. Put another way: The ones who send the deepest bows to their own overlords (“divine” or otherwise) also typically crave and insist on the most respect and obedience from others. Even without experimental confirmation, one could easily have discerned that dynamic simply in common sense from one’s daily observations of others. That, at least, has been my own experience.

(Interestingly, like the “ashram gossip” which one cannot avoid in such “God-centered” environments, the conversations of Zimbardo’s prisoners, too, centered a full 90% of the time on the shortcomings in their prison conditions, without reference to the outside world [Haney, et al., 1973].)

It is equally clear that the prisoners in Zimbardo’s study were not capable of giving “adult consent” to anything requested of them by the guards or the superintendent—even though they were perfectly normal, college-age individuals going into the study. That has profound relevance to the idea of sexual relations between guru-figures and their disciples. And that is so, even in addition to any context of “spiritual incest” deriving from the disciples viewing their leader as a “perfect father/mother figure,” as we shall see.

Ironically, there is a Hindu story about a lion who was raised among sheep, and grew up to believe that he himself was a sheep—bleating when he should have roared, etc. That behavior lasted until one day when another lion grabbed him, pointed his face into the mirrored surface of a pond, and showed him that he was a mighty lion, not a meek lamb.

The intended point of that story, of course, is that in our soul-natures we are mighty lions, simply behaving as sheep in our earthly lives. (Compare the other tale of the king who went out among his people and forgot who he was, then living as a commoner until awakened from that delusion.) A more poignant application, however, would see that self-confident, relatively independent lions and lionesses become dependent sheep when surrounded by other guarding/guru-ing “sheep in wolves’ clothing.”

As one final eerie observation regarding the Stanford role-playing: Before the termination of the experiment, the rumor of an impending breakout from the simulated prison had begun to circulate. In response to that, rather than simply recording the transmission of rumors and observing the escape, Zimbardo and his colleagues began planning how to foil it. That is, Zimbardo, as he later admitted, had begun to think and act like the prison superintendent role he was playing, rather than as an impartial, witnessing social psychologist.

The prisoners in that study were initially rounded up by police, de-loused when checking into the prison, and stripped of their prior identities by being given numbers instead of names, etc., in order to make their prison experience as “real” as possible. Likewise, the acute rebellion on the second day of the incarceration will have made the guards’ experience more “real.” No such “mind games,” however, were played with Zimbardo himself. Nor was he at any risk, compared to the guards, of coming to physical harm from the prisoners. Yet his adopting of his self-assigned “role” came just as quickly, and just as intensely.

How much explicit “mind control” or “brainwashing” is then likely to be necessary, over a sufficiently long period of time, to get the people in any context into their roles, and turn their environment toxic? Probably none at all—though that is not at all to say that the use of such techniques would not cause things to get worse, faster, for it certainly would. (“Mind control” is regarded as being effected via techniques which include “sleep deprivation, special diets, controlling information going in and out, peer pressure, extensive indoctrination sessions, such as long hours of chanting, meditating, listening to droning lectures and mild forms of trance induction that ... reduce the person’s ability to think clearly” [Lalich, 1997].)

Interestingly, rock stars, too, have at times sought psychological counseling to help them step out of their adopted, onstage personas, when those seeped too far into their private lives.

Comparable to Zimbardo’s slipping into the superintendent role, at one point several disciples of the superintendent-guru Rajneesh left his Oregon ashram without warning. Rather than simply observing that with enlightened “choiceless awareness,” however, Bhagwan’s concern over additional “escapes” is said to have led him to tell his disciples that if anyone else departed in the same manner, he would leave his body permanently. That, of course, would have been the worst thing that any of his devoted disciples could have imagined. And no one wants to be the one who “killed God,” or to have to face that guilt either from his own conscience or from the community. Thus, the pressures mobilized by that warning, and the fact that followers needed help in leaving the isolated area, ensured the “security” of that “prison.” Indeed, according to Milne (1986), the threat immediately staved off three more already planned “escapes.”

After all that, Alexander (2001) summed up the enduring legacy of Zimbardo’s study:

What drives much of the fascination with the experiment is the sense that any individual could become a brutal dictator if given the chance....
“These guys were all peaceniks,” [Zimbardo] recalled of the students chosen to be guards. “They became like Nazis”....
“It shows how easy it is for good people to become perpetrators of evil.”

Zimbardo’s website, at, presents a fuller, online photo/video documentary of that chilling experiment.

* * *

Temporary residents of psychiatric asylums have observed with discomfort how easy it was for them to slip into enjoying having all of their decisions made for them—as to when to eat, bathe, sleep, etc.

It would be naïve to think that a similar dynamic did not apply to a significant proportion of our world’s ashram residents. For, they equally have their practical decisions made by the rules of the community, and their moral and metaphysical ones made by the guru-figure. With or without profound energy flows and transmitted bliss/enlightenment, that abdication of independence would appeal to far too many, and provides a very significant additional impediment in attempting to return to the “real world.” For in the latter, one must make one’s own choices, and be held responsible for the consequences. In the former, by contrast, to yield one’s decisions to others is taken as a sign of loyalty and spiritual growth in the loss of ego, and is correspondingly socially rewarded.

Once you get the rules and the rituals straight, it’s easy. No decisions, no choices, nothing to plan. It’s ever so much harder to live on your own [than as a Zen monk] (Boehm, 1996).
Given that all daily needs were taken care of—food, clothing, living arrangements—there were few decisions left for a member [of Heaven’s Gate] to make (Lalich, 2004).
Persons can voluntarily elect to enter a total institution and cease thereafter, to their regret, to be able to make ... important decisions. In other cases, notably the religious, inmates may begin with and sustain a willful desire to be stripped and cleansed of personal will (Goffman, 1961).
Jetsunma’s telephone number was unlisted and kept private, even from most of her students. “Otherwise, I’d get calls all day,” she explained later, “people asking me which cereal to buy” (Sherrill, 2000).

Of course, such crippling (co-)dependence is a two-way street: Jetsunma, Cohen, Trungpa, and many others, have all reportedly controlled the personal lives of their followers as well. That governance has typically included the guru-figure setting up, and breaking up, long-term relationships, and suggesting which couples should have children, etc.

As a loyal disciple, one is taking the guru-figure’s claims of enlightenment seriously, and regarding his/her teachings as being the shortest route to the end of one’s own sorrows in bliss or some other variation of enlightenment. What choice, then, does one have but to follow such “God-given” advice, regardless of how obviously meddling and obsessively controlling it may be? What, other than “ego,” would resist?

If “God” tells you to do something, you do it, right?

Such devoted following will further generally and “validly” (in that context) lead you to immerse yourself in the guru-figure’s teachings, to the natural exclusion of outside writings or news. In such a scenario, you will probably equally willingly drop your relationships with family and friends outside the ashram, if the resistance or lack of understanding of those outsiders is felt to interfere with your spiritual quest. Conversely, they will just as easily drop you, should your new set of beliefs and activities be too “weird” for them to be comfortable with.

“Call me,” [Pam] said. “I hate to see you fuck up your life in a place like this.”
“You don’t want to be a Hare Krishna. Think about it,” Diana added.
Pam sat there, the radio blaring louder than the ritual music from the temple, and then she squealed out of the driveway and roared off into the darkness of Watseka. I watched until the taillights faded. I hoped my friends would come back someday, but feared I’d lost them forever (Muster, 1997).
After making the decision to stay on at Kripalu, I had settled comfortably into the rhythm of life on campus.... My friends back home had their reactions, of course. Nina stopped talking to me for a while (Cope, 2000).

Georg Feuerstein (1992) related his own comparable episodes in entering, and later leaving, Adi Da’s ashram:

Old friends and colleagues had reacted to my decision to “drop out” of the academic world with incomprehension, some even with hostility. Similarly, my former fellow disciples quite failed to understand why I had to leave [the ashram, five years later]. Some even reacted angrily toward me, and a few still harbor ill feelings.
If you questioned and decided to leave [the Moonies], you would not be worthy of love—to the contrary, you would be worthy of scorn and even hatred (Hassan, 2000).

Or, as Butterfield (1994) summarized the dynamic:

The hypocrisy of [so-called] cult friendships, typically, is that while they pose as unconditional love, they depend powerfully on loyalty to the [alleged] cult.

All of that follows straightforward from the simple conformist principle of “fit in or be ostracized.” And that is applied just as much by members of the heterogeneous society outside the ashram gates as it is applied inside the homogeneously believing “cult.”

The push to conform was very strong in Heaven’s Gate but in some ways not so different from the norms of conformity found throughout U.S. society. The specifics of this conformity—ideas, appearance, language, deference to Ti [Nettles] and Do [Applewhite]—may seem odd to the outsider, but such conformism is rampant everywhere, as citizens flock to buy the latest fashion or hot product or kowtow to their bosses. It is the very normalcy of that behavior that made it easy for Ti and Do’s followers to go along with the program (Lalich, 2004).
* * *

It is just a question of degree or intensity, not a difference in kind, that separates “safe” communities and societies from so-called destructive ones. That is true along a continuum ranging from high school or the business world to the Marines to prison confinement to Jonestown. For, any relatively closed, hierarchical system with an emphasis on respectful obedience to the rules of enlightenment/parole/graduation/promotion, and insufficient checks and balances placed on the leaders to make them accountable to the followers and to the outside world, is a “pathology waiting to happen,” regardless of the sexes or ages involved.

Significantly, then, in a 1975 Psychology Today article, Zimbardo and his colleague, Craig Haney, observed that, in many important ways, “it’s tough to tell a high school from a prison”:

While we do not claim high schools are really prisons, the two environments resemble each other to a remarkable and distressing degree.... Any social institution—a school, hospital, factory, office—can fairly be labeled a prison if it seriously restricts a person’s freedom, imprisoning him in regulated and routinized modes of behavior or thought.

Zimbardo and Haney proceeded to sensibly map high school teachers to guards, and students to prisoners. And had they directed their attention to how religious communities are structured, they would surely have found it worth their while to perform a comparable mapping for those. They could further not have been at all surprised, in hindsight at least, to find that exactly the same problems are reported to occur in our world’s ashrams as manifest in our prisons, “in spite of” the former having a “god in the flesh” as a “superintendent,” and close disciples as “guards.”

Comparably, even with regard to the relatively safe business world, an anonymous poster on the SRF Walrus website observed:

It was so awful, working in corporations. I was a computer programmer, so I saw a lot of the inner workings at various levels. The first shocking thing that happens is to be in on an upper management meeting and see how blatantly anti-employee they are, with no apologies. But I came to feel that what was worse was the way the employees bought in to the mistreatment. If you say anything to point out to them how they’re being used and abused, you become the troublemaker [cf. Zimbardo’s prisoner #416], the boat-rocker. They are desperate to believe the emperor has on the latest and best stylings, and this drove me crazy.

That is, the psychological dynamics, as we could have guessed, are no different from those which occur in so-called cults and prisons, even if not approaching the Jonestown end along that continuum. (In such “cult”/prison environments, inmates can again be sadistically abused, with no regard for their rights, almost as if they were inferior animals rather than equal human beings.) Here, we obviously have executives substituted for guards, peon employees for prisoners, and CEOs for superintendents. The structure into which those fit, however, is as hierarchical as in any prison or ashram. It further contains persuasive (financial) reasons for the underlings to obey their superiors, and equal reasons for them to not “just leave,” even when being shat upon. So they instead remain, being “good employees,” not rocking the boat, in the hope of receiving reward and recognition/promotion for their obedience to the “much wiser” parent-figure managerial leaders.

Interestingly, similar dynamics can apply even in the smallest of “communities”:

The social convention of marriage ... becomes for many couples a state of imprisonment in which one partner agrees to become prisoner or guard, forcing or allowing the other to play the reciprocal role (Zimbardo, et al., 1973).

Focusing on “patriarchy” as opposed to “hierarchy” in any of those systems, however, only serves to obscure the relevant issues of basic human psychology. It further typically leads to utterly fallacious, frequently misandristic (as opposed to misogynistic) proposed “solutions” to the reported problems we have seen herein.

* * *

Even a pure democracy will naturally and inevitably turn into an authoritarian hierarchy in the face of any one person whom enough people believe to be an infallible “god.” Those supporters then defer to his (or her) “omniscient” perception of reality, and collectively enforce that same deference on their peers, against the penalty of ostracism from the community—a fate worse than peon-ship, even were salvation not at stake. Thereby do they ingratiate themselves and secure their own inner circle status, where they can “bask in the reflected glory” from such close proximity to the “cool sage” above them. In the same positions, they will further receive bowing respect from those below—exacted sadistically, if need be.

(With regard to the spontaneous production and defense of the guru position: Compare the unavoidable—not necessarily good, but unavoidable—presence of “alpha males” and pecking orders even in the animal kingdom. There is neither “patriarchy” nor “too much linear thinking” in such pre-verbal environments; yet the hierarchical orderings occur all the same.)

Spiritual paths as diverse as Roman Catholicism, Tibetan Buddhism and Paramahansa Yogananda’s SRF have been grown in cultures ranging from the agrarian East to postmodern America. Yet, they are scarcely distinguishable in their power structures, the behaviors of their members, the penalties for leaving and the reported, spirit-crushing cruelties visited upon those who stay. And given all that, it seems clear by now that not only are the problems with such communities systemic, but the abuse-creating structures are themselves basically unavoidable.

The issues we have seen, then, are the product far less of a few “bad apples,” than of the surroundings in which they are contained.

Prisons [and other authoritarian institutions, e.g., ashrams], where the balance of power is so unequal, tend to be brutal and abusive places unless great effort is made to control the guards’ base impulses, [Zimbardo] said. At Stanford and in Iraq [e.g., Abu Ghraib], he added: “It’s not that we put bad apples in a good barrel. We put good apples in a bad barrel. The barrel corrupts anything that it touches” (J. Schwartz, 2004).

In Abu Ghraib, “guards were allowed to do what they needed to keep ‘order and justice’ inside the prison”—an instruction which is obviously wholly comparable to that given to Zimbardo’s guards.

David Clohessy, the national director of S.N.A.P. (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), gave a similar analysis of the Catholic Church, in its problems with clergy sexual abuse (in Bruni and Burkett, 2002):

It’s not bad apples. It’s the structure of the barrel that the apples are in, and it’s the people who are in charge of the barrel, and the people who fill up the barrel [i.e., the bishops, cardinals and pope].

Almost universally, in spiritual communities, there are no meaningful checks and balances on the behaviors of the leaders, to restrict their exercise of “divine” power. That is so, not only in terms of their indulgence in base (e.g., sadistic or sexual) impulses, but also in failing to prevent the Animal Farm-like rewriting of the tenets on which the community was originally founded. (Compare SRF’s current monopoly on “valid” kriya initiation, etc.) Yet, there is simultaneously no shortage of indoctrination, required deference, ostracism and worse, utilized to keep the followers from even cognizing, much less speaking up about, those power-grabs and rule-changes. And before you know it, the Board of Directors members, for example, have become “more equal” than the people to whom they should be accountable. They will further benefit from there being no shortage of peons eager to prove their loyalty to the cause, and work their way up “toward God,” by doubly reinforcing that inequality on anyone who dares to question it.

Profound deference in such spiritual communities will further occur even if all below the “alpha sage” believe that they themselves can eventually attain to his or her ostensibly exalted level of wisdom or spiritual realization. For, no small part of the means toward attaining that enlightened wisdom is to “temporarily” defer to its manifestation in the guru-figure. Conversely, to question “God’s” wisdom is to suffer one form or another of damnation within the community, just as to obey him unquestioningly is to secure one’s own salvation.

There is in the Indian tradition the notion that ... “criticizing the guru” is a thing that the disciples must not tolerate; and they don’t (Bharati, 1976; italics added).
Whatever you do should be done only to please the guru. Without the guru, enlightenment is impossible (Butterfield, 1994).
You have to do everything your guru says. You must obey (Neem Karoli Baba, in [Das, 1997]).
[Ramakrishna] once admonished an unsuspecting young man who refused to wash the Master’s feet after the latter’s toilet: “If I piss standing, you buggers have to do it dancing around. You must do my bidding for your own good” (Sil, 1998).

In the relevant words of Upasani Baba (1978)—a disciple of the original Shirdi Sai Baba—who was himself married, by ancient Vedic custom, to a full twenty-five virgin girls:

[I]t is never the business of the devotee to doubt or interpret in his own way whatever he is spoken to by the Satpurusha [God-realized man]. He cannot understand the real purport of Sadguru’s [i.e., the true teacher’s] talk or action; because his reasoning and thought are never capable of fathoming Guru’s thoughts or actions.

Or, as Adi Da (1974) conveniently explained to his own followers:

If you assume the Guru is less than [living always and consciously in Divine Communion], if you assume what he says is less than Truth, that he is other than the Divine, that he does not live in God in exactly the way that he is asking you to live in God, then you are not living in Satsang with such a one, and you are not doing this sadhana.

Or recall Andrew Cohen’s reported promise to his disciples: “Anyone who loves me ... is guaranteed enlightenment.” But how is such love shown, if not through quick and willing obedience? Could someone who “loved” him still openly question, much less disobey? Not if we are to believe the reports from his former disciples:

Whoever shows himself to be a loyal student is his friend. Those who are disloyal or unreliable fall out of favor (van der Braak, 2003).

Comparably, from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, we have this dangerous counsel:

A courageous disciple, armored with the determination never to displease his teacher even at the cost of his life, so stable-minded that he is never shaken by immediate circumstances, who serves his teacher without caring for his own health or survival and obeys his every command without sparing himself at all—such a person will be liberated simply through his devotion (Rinpoche, 1998; italics added).
Guru-devotion involves both your thoughts and actions. The most important thing is to develop the total conviction that your Guru is a Buddha.... If you doubt your Guru’s competence and ability to guide you, your practices will be extremely unstable and you will be unable to make any concrete progress....
If your Guru acts in a seemingly unenlightened manner and you feel it would be hypocritical to think him a Buddha, you should remember that your own opinions are unreliable and the apparent faults you see may only be a reflection of your own deluded state of mind. Also you should think that if your Guru acted in a completely perfect manner, he would be inaccessible and you would be unable to relate to him. It is therefore out of your Guru’s great compassion that he may show apparent flaws. This is part of his use of skillful means in order for him to be able to teach you. He is mirroring your own faults (Beru Kyhentze Rinpoche, in [Berzin, 1978]; italics added).
Once a person has been identified [in India] as a saint, a holy man, nothing he does or does not do can change his title, unless he is caught in flagrante, and several times, engaged in disastrous things like sex or forbidden drink. But even in such a case, once his charisma is firmly established, there is a dialectic out of such dilemma: the emancipated person is not bound by social rules, and there is enough scripture to support it (Bharati, 1976).

All of that, of course, is simply manipulative, power-preserving nonsense, presented in the guise of spirituality. And it all, as we have seen, exists just as surely in the traditional, agrarian East as in the postmodern West, by its own admission.

The indefensibly stupid notion that the “real difficulty of ‘the strange case of Adi Da’ is that the guru principle is neither understood nor accepted by our culture” is clearly part of the same dangerous apologetic. For, it is again obvious that whenever “God” is involved, there are no checks and balances: “God” can always do whatever he wants, regardless of the surrounding culture or tradition.

In the face of such traditional instruction, points such as the following, from the Dalai Lama no less, ring utterly hollow:

Part of the blame lies with the student, because too much obedience, devotion, and blind acceptance spoils a teacher.... Part also lies with the spiritual master because he lacks the integrity to be immune to that kind of vulnerability (in Butler, 1990).

Of course, by parity of argument, one would equally place “part of the blame” on abused women for giving up their power to men, or ridiculously regard too-obedient children as “spoiling” their parents, etc.

Much more sensibly:

The guru system, the Zen Master system and every other variation on that theme is just as horrible and destructive to folks with amber skin and almond shaped eyes as it is to folks with white skin and blue eyes. It didn’t work two thousand years ago in Rishikesh, India any better than it works right now in Racine, Wisconsin (Warner, 2004).
Charaka, the first-century court physician whose writings help form the basis of ancient Indian medicine, wrote that a student was free to ignore a guru’s orders if they jeopardized health or were against the law. One suspects, though, that it would have been difficult for a student so trained in obedience to decide when the time for rebellion had come (Brent, 1972).
* * *

Even if the guru-figure was ever all that he claimed to be, it would take at most a few years for an inner circle of “guards” to accumulate around him or her. Those high-ranking followers will then work roughly within the overall constraints set by the guru/superintendent and immediate culture. They themselves are always looking up to the guru-figure with respect, being at times harshly disciplined by him, and feeling always inferior to him. They will thus exact their own craved measures of respect, obedience and superiority, to re-inflate their own self-esteem, from the only source available, i.e., from those below them in the closed community. And the obedience of the latter can only be unconditional, with no threat of rebellion, when their wills are completely broken. (Absolute power in any context is mutually exclusive with a tolerance for discontent. For, it is exactly the vocalization and acting-out of such dissatisfaction that would show the governing power to be less than absolute.)

People compensate for their subservience to superiors by exploiting inferiors. They feel entitled (Mike Lew, in [Bruni and Burkett, 2002]).

Or, as Goffman noted in his (1961) study of totalistic institutions, Asylums:

[W]ith the decision that [military] officer training camp has “earned” him rights over enlisted men, the officer trainee becomes an officer. The pain suffered in camp can be used as a justification for the pleasures of command.

As to those “pleasures of command” in the exercise of dominance over others, Zimbardo (1971) further observed:

[W]e are all subject at some level to being corrupted by power. It may be as children we start off with an unfair power disadvantage where adults tell us [as gurus similarly do later] what to do and we have to do it. Maybe at some level we are seeking to redress that imbalance.

Toward that same wish for redress, in proportion to the experienced imbalance, Haney and Zimbardo (1998) noted:

[A]s the experiment progressed, more [prisoners] frequently expressed intentions to do harm to others (even as they became increasingly more docile and conforming to the whims of the guards).

When it comes to (bowing) respect, then, it seems that the more we give, the more we crave to get in return—easily slipping into even the sadistic abuse of others in order to secure that.

Of course, in spiritual contexts and elsewhere, the rabid intolerance for disobedience, disrespect and disloyalty in others, and consequent punishment for that, could also be seen as having additional psychological origins. Indeed, one might well take it as involving a projection of one’s own unallowed feelings of disloyalty and wishes for disobedience onto them. That is, since one is not permitted to acknowledge disloyalty or disobedience in oneself, one instead sees and punishes it doubly in others.

The guards in Zimbardo’s study had further been instructed to maintain order in the prison by an authority-figure. Thus, it is also quite possible that a significant part of their behaviors might be traced to attempts at winning the approval of that authority. If they were going to do their jobs well in the eyes of their own bosses, after all, they could brook no discontent or disrespect from the prisoners.

The extracting of respect and obedience, in any case, will be done via whatever means of psychological and physical manipulation and abuse the upper echelon can get away with. And that will again be done under pretenses (in religious communities) of “killing the egos” of others for their own spiritual benefit. Further, it will be enacted within a group mentality (at all levels of the hierarchy) where to resist what your “elders” are telling you is to invite ostracism from the rest of the community.

* * *

In Zimbardo’s study, the early rebellion of the prisoners both created a solidarity among the guards, and reinforced the awareness of the latter that they might actually be in danger. I know of no ashram that has ever had such an acute, concerted rebellion—Kripalu at the end of Desai’s rule perhaps comes closest. Nor are the guru-figure or his inner circle ever in any physical danger from their followers. Yet they reportedly behave sadistically all the same, with no more tolerance for disobedience or disloyalty than Zimbardo’s guards exhibited. That is, the “steady state” of the environment is remarkably similar even if, in the absence of acute transients, it may have taken longer to get there. (It took all of a few days in Zimbardo’s prison study, even though both the guard and prisoner participants in it were perfectly normal and healthy individuals going into that.)

Nor would even a genuine “perfect master” (if there were such a thing, which there absolutely is not) at the head of such a community be able to avoid those problems. For, as much as disciples may transfer their own hopes for perfection onto the guru, no such perfection was ever ascribed to Zimbardo or to his guards. Nor did he or his guards promulgate any “weird” system of beliefs. Nor were those guards intending, at the start, to enact any means of “mind control.”

Yet, in spite of those innocent beginnings, Zimbardo’s guards actually ended up effecting sleep deprivation and controlling even the bathroom activities and food intake of their prisoners, attempting force-feeding on at least one occasion.


I wasn’t long in the [Irish Sisters of Charity orphanage] and there was a piece of parsnip in my dinner, and it was dirty. I politely put it to one side of my plate, and ate everything else. The nun came down and told me to eat the parsnip. I said no. So she force fed it to me, and I got sick. Then she force fed that to me as well. And she started to beat me with her belt (Raftery and O’Sullivan, 2001).

Note, then, how the sadistic behavior is exactly the same whether coming from women or from men. That is, the fact that all of Zimbardo’s guards and prisoners were male is not, in practice, relevant. (The mixture of the sexes in Abu Ghraib likewise did not prevent female guards there from allegedly being among the worst abusers of power.)

Zimbardo’s “bad” guards enacted their sadistic and controlling behaviors not for having been told to do so by him. Rather, they evolved those means of control on their own. That is, like the Irish nuns above, they behaved thusly not because they were directly told to by an authority figure, but rather just because they were allowed to.

Consider further that in Zimbardo’s study, the power was divided up more or less evenly among the guards. Had Zimbardo not been there at all (as superintendent), one can easily see that the division of power among the guards would have been just as equal. Yet things could only have gotten worse, faster. The point, then, is that a group of people with absolute or near-absolute authority is no better than is a single individual with the same power.

Nor would such a group act to enforce “checks and balances” on each other at their own level. For, Zimbardo’s “good” guards, rather than constraining the activities of their “bad” counterparts, simply felt helpless in watching the sadistic behaviors of the latter.

How are we to understand why otherwise-reasonable and healthy men would behave so impotently? First, we may note that it is typical of human behavior that, in witnessing any objectionable activity from within a group of comparable onlookers, we assume that “someone else” will speak up or call the police, if that needs to be done. Indeed, it has actually been shown in controlled studies that we are less likely to intervene if we are surrounded by a group of others than as a sole witness to a crime or emergency (Cialdini [2001]; Zimbardo [2004b]). For, we will naturally take our cues from their outwardly calm, evaluating behaviors, as they take their cues from ours.

As one relevant example of such covert evaluation and subsequent going along with the group, consider the reaction of the guest reporting Ken Wilber’s alleged public miming of masturbation and frequent, sophomoric requests there for blowjobs:

I laughed with everyone else, but at the back of my mind, I realized I was disturbed and disappointed by it.... But other people I talked to weren’t bothered by it at all, so maybe he just gauged his audience correctly (in Integral, 2004).

In asking other subjects about whether they were bothered by such behaviors, though, one is effectively inquiring: “Were you disturbed by our emperor’s new clothes?” The obvious answer to which is, “No, of course not.”

Regardless, having spent sufficient time in silence within a group of onlookers, the first question one would face should one finally openly object would be the embarrassing: Why did you keep quiet for so long, if it was obvious from the beginning that something needed to be done? We therefore have a personal stake in not admitting that we should have done things differently—i.e., that we were wrong to behave thusly. For that reason, and even merely for the sake of socially rewarded consistency, we instead remain silent, allowing the problems to continue. (Institutions such as the Vatican persist in their errors and reported abuses in no small part exactly for being unable to come out and admit that they have been wrong in the past [cf. Wills, 2000].) Plus, for Zimbardo’s relatively sensitive “good” guards, for example, to speak out against the activities of their more sadistic counterparts would surely have resulted in their quick ostracism from that sub-community of “alpha guards,” who actually enjoyed mistreating their prisoners.

Everyone and everything in the prison was defined by power. To be a guard who did not take advantage of this institutionally sanctioned use of power was to appear “weak,” “out of it,” “wired up by the prisoners,” or simply a deviant from the established norms of appropriate guard behavior (Zimbardo, et al., 1973).

In evaluating the actions of their guards, Zimbardo and his colleagues further noted:

[T]he behavior of [the] good guards seemed more motivated by a desire to be liked by everyone in the system than by a concern for the inmates’ welfare.

Guards who thus want to be “liked by everyone,” however, will not only do small favors for the prisoners and avoid punishing them, but will equally shrink from offending their own peers. Thus, they will again avoid speaking out against the abuses of the latter. (As Zimbardo [1971] himself further noted, allowing those “bad” guards free reign also makes one look “good” by comparison. That is, it casts one’s own ego in a positive light, and allows one to feel like a better person in that contrast.)

Whatever the theory behind the ensuing silence may be, though—in broad strokes or in nuances—in practice it is a pervasive feature of human societies, both secular and “sacred”:

It is evident from the testimony of former inmates that by no means all of [the Irish Catholic nuns and monastic brothers] behaved brutally towards the children. But it is a common theme that the “good” nuns and brothers never interfered with or protested about the activities of their more violent colleagues (Raftery and O’Sullivan, 2001).

Zimbardo has more recently (2004a) concluded:

My research and that of my colleagues has cataloged the conditions for stirring the crucible of human nature in negative directions. Some of the necessary ingredients are ... bystanders who do not intervene, and a setting of power differentials.

“Bystanders who do not intervene”: e.g., “good” monks who wonder out loud why their peers and superiors are not behaving with integrity, but who do nothing to stop it. For, to speak up would make them “bad disciples” and open them to retaliation/ostracism from those tougher ones on the same level and above them.

“A setting of power differentials”: e.g., guru-figure, inner circle, and peon/newbie disciples.

* * *

No amount of flaws shown by the spiritual teacher will dissuade the truly sincere seeker from becoming involved and deferential. Not, at least, if he places enlightenment/salvation as a high enough goal in his own life, and believes that the holy figure in question can help him get to that state faster than any other route. Thus, as Butterfield (1994) noted in the context of his own initiation into Trungpa’s path, with the latter having given that Vajrayana transmission via a rambling, nearly nonsensical, stream-of-consciousness delivery:

He could have said very little to dissuade me, as long as I remained convinced that he knew what I wanted to learn.

Ponder that point deeply, for it means that the utilization of “deceptive recruiting” as a means of defining what a potentially destructive group is, is far less relevant than one might imagine it to be. For, even without such deception, one may well truly believe (on the basis of “genius” recommendations and the like) that one or another guru-figure is a “great Realizer,” and that he can lead you to the same exalted state if you just “surrender completely” to him. And in that case, you will put up with any amount of “Rude Boy” mistreatment in that relationship, and consider it to be for your own benefit, even if you have been warned about it beforehand.

Even just in normal human relationships, if someone has something we want—sex, money, etc.—we will tolerate a great deal of grief and mistreatment in order to get it. And being told up-front that the other person is “trouble,” or that we will be asked to compromise our principles in the process, won’t stop us from going willing into that, if we just want the “prize” badly enough.

So, how badly do you want enlightenment?

The guru claimed to offer access to profoundly ecstatic spiritual realization, and the only way to gain access to that experience was by playing his game. The better you played the game, by showing your devotion and obedience, the greater your contact with the guru and the more frequent your opportunities for grace (Lowe, 1996).

Interestingly, the Daists have reportedly (Lowe, 1996) attempted to get the “disappointingly” tame Garbage and the Goddess out of circulation. Likewise, when an exposé of the “Merwin incident” was published in their local Boulder Monthly, Trungpa’s followers apparently “scurried about town, trying to keep the magazine off the racks by purchasing several copies at a time” (Schumacher, 1992). Books uncomplimentary toward so-called cults also tend to vanish mysteriously from public libraries. My local city reference library, for example—which allows no books to be taken out—is nevertheless missing its sole copy of David Lane’s (1994) Exposing Cults. That book itself is notably critical of Da Free John, among numerous other “lesser lights/coronas.”

Such reported attempts at covering up questionable behaviors, however, are fairly superfluous. For, the spiritual world is more than screwed up enough for its leading figures to still explicitly encourage you to go along for the “adventure,” even years after the reported methods of “Teaching” have been widely publicized.

And, if you can’t take the “Rude Boy” discipline, whose fault/ego is that?

Remember: “The greater the offense, the bigger the ego.”

Put another way: The expert reassurance of a highly respected hero or “genius” that being disciplined by a God-realized “Rude Boy” is the fastest way toward one’s own most-valued realization (or salvation) will easily override any concerns one might have about even a reportedly “problematic” group. It is, after all, very easy to rationalize away the complaints of disaffected former followers as being mere “whining” or “cowardice” on the part of people who “couldn’t take the heat,” etc. That is so even if the group is prone to literally beating the crap out of its followers, as we have seen. In such a case, the purportedly destructive group could even fully disclose all of its past alleged abuses and plans for future mistreatment to potential members, and new lemmings would still flock to join. (Recall how Zen monks will allow themselves to be literally beaten black and blue just to get into the monastery. That is, they go into that environment knowing full well that it is a violently abusive one. They have further in no way been “deceptively recruited” into that.)

In such a realistic scenario, then, seekers absolutely would not merely find themselves involuntarily “recruited” into reportedly destructive groups by any deceptive means. Rather, they would explicitly go looking for those. They sought out Rajneesh’s violent humanistic encounter sessions, too, presumably frequently on the recommendations of people they admired, as opposed to going into them without knowing what would likely occur in those groups. Likewise, Yogi Bhajan’s (1977) explicit, printed statement that disciples might be required to steal on behalf of the guru (e.g., Bhajan himself) was evidently not sufficient to scare off his own reported quarter of a million followers.

[A]lmost everyone [in Da’s community], without exception, was subjected to a number of [alleged] mind-control methods, including non-stop indoctrination, intense overwork, sleep-denial, constant peer pressure and a barrage of demands, to the point where they were effectively robbed of judgment.
People accepted this mistreatment because ... they believed the promise that it would break down their “resistance” to God in the person of the Guru. People accepted that their “egos” needed to be disciplined and “destroyed,” so that the same “spiritual genius” the Guru claimed would awaken in them (Elias, 1999a).

The full extent of the behind-the-scenes dysfunctionality in any religious organization is, of course, never explained to its prospective members up front. (Likewise, it is never disclosed at the beginning of any job or human relationship, nor could one reasonably expect it to be.) Still, if there is “deception” in our world’s “authentic, transformative” spiritual organizations, it is more in the guru-figures not living up to their own teachings, or not possessing the spiritual realization which they claim to have—an entirely separate issue. It has little to do with potential followers supposedly not knowing that they would be subjected to extreme “discipline,” or required to break the law at the guru-figure’s instruction, with the reward of eventually becoming “as great as the guru” themselves.

And, having gone willingly into that “heat,” devotees have no easy way out, to save spiritual face. They will therefore soon find themselves bearing the reported abuse willingly and silently, as a purported sign of spiritual development/loyalty/obedience. Further, that will be done in the implicit hope that if they are thus “loyal” and obedient enough, for long enough, the mistreatment will stop, and they will receive nothing but love.

That futile strategy of coping, however, is one which they share with battered wives. Indeed, the latter, like the former disciples, frequently feel unable to leave their abusive spouses in large part for having had their own egos destroyed by being told repeatedly, in one form or another, that they are worthless and incapable. They then behave accordingly, with all due expected helplessness.

[B]attered women are notoriously loyal to their abusers, and often cling desperately to the hope that everything will change and come out for the best. A primary task of battered woman shelters and support groups is to break through this denial and help the woman face the fact that the abuser is in fact doing what he is doing. From there, recovery is possible.
The same psychological mechanisms that create loyalty in a battered woman [e.g., by making her “complicit in her own exploitation”—in helplessness and otherwise—from which she “becomes supportive of the exploiter”], deliberately instilled, can make a [so-called] cult victim loyal to the [alleged] cult (Bob Penny, in [Wakefield, 1991]).

It is well known, further, that certain people will knowingly enter into secular sadomasochistic relationships for “getting off” on that pain or humiliation—having psychologically associated it with receiving love. In a like manner, spiritual seekers with sufficiently skewed views of enlightenment, associating pain or extreme discipline/humiliation with realization and spirituality, will only be attracted, not repelled, by the idea of being abused “for their own good” by a realized “god.” (Compare even the “suffering as a path to salvation” perspectives of the likes of Thérèse of Lisieux—described by Pius X as “the greatest saint of modern times”—and Mother Teresa in the Catholic Church. Indeed, for a revealing analysis of the probable psychological factors underlying the religious fervor, and eager embrace of suffering and humiliation on the part of the former “Little Flower,” see Monica Furlong’s [1987] Thérèse of Lisieux.)

The ability to put one’s own conscience aside and do whatever the guru asks you to is further believed to be essential to God-realization (with that being gained only through the grace of the guru). One might well then even seek out guru-figures who are known to be “amoral.” For, what is morality but a product of the same conceptualization which daily blinds us to the Way Things Are? Isn’t breaking such arbitrary hang-ups exactly what we need to do if we wish to be free of our dualistic conceptual boundaries? So, a “wild and crazy” guru who will “wisely” place you into situations where you have no choice but to drop your categorizing intellect and culturally molded conscience in “choiceless awareness” would be the best for accelerating your own spiritual evolution, yes? You could further hardly ask up-front for a detailed list of what you might be asked to do in such a community, as that would spoil the spontaneity of the guru’s “divine expression,” would it not?

There is further, quite clearly, no alleged abuse or breach of conventional morality so gross that it cannot be rationalized away, even by persons outside of the residential group. That is so, particularly for those who desperately want to believe that one or another guru-figure is the “greatest living Realizer” or the like, and that everything he or she does is a “Teaching.” And, one need not be “brainwashed” in order to think that such rationalizations “make sense.” Rather, one needs only to sincerely believe in the long-touted, if utterly wonky, transpersonal theory.

The voluntary entrance into known (reported) psychologically/physically abusive and amoral environments will then quite naturally follow. For, how else can one prove one’s “spiritual machismo” to the heroes who have recommended “complete surrender” to one or another even-“problematic” guru and environment? How else to show that you’re serious about becoming as “enlightened” as they are in their spiritual genius, except by “taking the heat”?

Interestingly, Live singer/songwriter Eddie Kowalczyk has expressed his early appreciation for Wilber’s (1996) A Brief History of Everything. He later visited with Wilber himself in August of 1999. Kowalczyk then blurbed for Da in 2000, crediting him with being “Real God ... incarnate as Avatar Adi Da Samraj.”

Coincidence? Or a troubling demonstration of the points above, even with Kowalczyk meeting Da as a “celebrity” either way, and thus necessarily having no real knowledge as to what the “Avatar” and his reportedly dildo-wielding, corona-seeing “pod people” are really like?

* * *

Zimbardo again took two dozen completely normal, physically and mentally healthy college-age individuals. He then confined them, willingly and voluntarily, to a closed environment; stratified the community into guards and prisoners; and simply instructed the higher-ups to exact obedience and respect from the lower ones. He further introduced no charismatic leadership, weird beliefs or claims to divinity on his own part. There was even no punishment for leaving, other than the loss of the money the prisoners were to be paid for their full-term participation in the study, and their own subjective feelings of being “bad prisoners” in prematurely exiting. Yet, in less than six days, and quite unintentionally, he created behaviors among the various classes of participants which are indistinguishable from those allegedly found in—as a very reasonable extrapolation from the known, reported data—every ashram and every so-called cult.

It is thus not the charisma or “divine” status per se of any leader which creates problems. Rather, the “problematic” nature is again inherent in the power structure of every closed hierarchical community, when that stratification is combined with basic human psychology. Having an “infallible god-man” rather than a merely human superintendent at the helm will make it harder for others to disobey or to leave, but even without that, disobedience and departure will in no way be easy to enact.

Conversely, each one of us is again susceptible to exhibiting docile “cult-follower” behavior in the right/wrong circumstances. Tendencies toward conformity, authoritarianism or blind belief may make it statistically more likely for any given person to be thus fooled, but truly, it could happen to any one of us.

People believe that “it can never happen to them” because they want to believe they are stronger and better than the millions who have fallen victim to [alleged] cult mind control....
A [so-called] cult will generally target the most educated, active, and capable people it can find. I hear comments such as “I never knew there were so many brilliant people in these types of groups” (Hassan, 1990).
Such beliefs as, “others could be made to do that but not me” and “others could be swayed by speeches but not me” are dangerous because they set us apart from other people who are like ourselves and therefore prevent us from learning from their experience what may be valuable for ourselves (Winn, 2000).
[O]ur experiences [with the Moonies] could happen to any American family (Underwood and Underwood, 1979).
[E]ven people who said, “I could never join a cult,” would walk in [to Rajneesh’s ashrams] as if on a dare and emerge no different from a person who had entered as an eager seeker....
Bhagwan emphatically stated that what we were involved in was not a religion, and this appealed to people who would be the first to decry anyone who joined a “cult.” As a matter of fact we joined a cult precisely because it wasn’t a cult (Strelley, 1987).
* * *

Significantly, it was only when an “outsider” objected to the behaviors occurring within Zimbardo’s study that it was stopped. (That came, however, only after fifty other outside observers had themselves voiced no shock or negative opinion.) Having not previously been involved with the experiment in any capacity, she had thus not participated step-by-step in the “slow descent into madness,” instead walking straight into it, unprepared, on the sixth day (Zimbardo, et al., 2000).

That, of course, reminds one eerily of the old experiment/story of the frog placed into water in a saucepan on a stove, with that water then being slowly heated. Lacking any sudden increase in temperature to alert him that all is not well, the frog will allow himself to be slowly cooked, rather than simply jumping out of the water to safety.

A comparable “slow descent,” invisible to those who participate in it step-by-step on a daily basis, occurs in our world’s ashrams. Indeed, even new members in an already “mad” environment will have that introduction cushioned by having the most questionable aspects of the organization hidden from them until they have demonstrated their loyalty. To find out, first-hand, how bad things really are, then, one must already be “halfway cooked” oneself, via that slow increase in heat.

Consider, further, Stanley Milgram’s (1974) obedience experiments. There, a majority (nearly two-thirds, in one experimental version) of ordinary people were induced, in less than an hour, to administer what they thought were potentially lethal shocks to even hysterically protesting others, simply out of their obedience to the minimal authority of an experimenter.

The most significant aspect of [Milgram’s] experiment is that not one participant refuses to continue when the planted subject first asks them to stop. It is only later, with a threat of death or grave illness, that people refuse to go on with the shocks. It is always and only the scream that is heeded, and never its antecedent, never the beginnings or first hints of pain [i.e., never the first sensings of the “slow, continual increase in heat”]....
One sees the same thing at work in [so-called] cults: a refusal to recognize in early excesses, early signs, the full implications of what is going on and will follow later. Relinquishing step by step the individualities of conscience, followers are slowly accustomed to one stage of [reported] abuse after another, becoming so respectful of the authority that they never quite manage to rebel (Marin, 1995).

Both of those frightening experimental demonstrations (of Zimbardo and Milgram) arise simply from basic human situational psychology, present as much outside our world’s ashrams as inside them.

One could, indeed, substitute respect-hungering inner-circle monks for guards, gurus for superintendents, and younger monks for prisoners, repeating Zimbardo’s study in any of our world’s ashrams, and the results of the experiment would surely not change at all. Likewise, one might substitute elder monks for dial-turning shockers, younger monks for shockee subjects, and gurus for lab-coated experimenters, willing to accept responsibility for the results of the shocks, even unto death/enlightenment. In that case, one would no doubt find the vast majority of “holy, peaceful” monks and nuns just “doing what they were told” in that context, regardless of the consequences to the physical or mental health of their shocked subjects.

Milgram’s subjects were not behaving sadistically in raising the voltage with which they shocked their learners, as he showed in additional experiments. They equally, however, were not attempting to exact obedience or respect from the people they were shocking. The difference in both motivation and behavior there is thus quite understandable. For, there is clearly quite a significant contrast in mindset between trying to help someone learn, even as a semi-teacher—the “cover story” for Milgram’s obedience experiments—versus explicitly attempting to exact respect and unconditional obedience from them.

It further goes without saying that gurus and their close disciples would not react any more favorably to attempts to “reform” them than Zimbardo’s guards could possibly have welcomed that, had the prisoners tried to improve that environment to curtail the sadistic abuse to which they were being subjected, for example. (Compare the one “troublemaker,” #416.) Indeed, most of those guards—willingly working overtime, for no extra pay—were upset when the study was prematurely ended, in contrast to the prisoners, who were glad it was over. That is, the guards’ sadistic behaviors were in no way caused or amplified by them hypothetically “not wanting to be there” and taking that frustration out on the prisoners, or the like.

There has been much speculation in recent times that perhaps so many of the nuns [running Irish Catholic institutional schools] were cruel to the children in their care because they themselves were frustrated, having possibly even been forced to enter a convent by their families. There is no evidence to support this view. In fact, quite the reverse (Raftery and O’Sullivan, 2001).

All of that is hardly surprising, though. For, as every “Rude Boy” and sadistic guard knows, killing other people’s egos or breaking their wills via humiliation, or “beating the crap out of them” for their own good, is such fun. With power being such an aphrodisiac, who would want to give up that complete control over another person’s life? (See Zimbardo, et al. [1973]; Haney, et al. [1973].)

* * *

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, too, offers valuable insights into the dynamics of closed, authoritarian societies. And interestingly, when a movie version of that book was being filmed, the problem which the director encountered was not in getting the child actors into character while the cameras were rolling. Rather, the difficulty was in getting them out of character when the shooting was stopped. As Peter Brook explained (in Askenasy, 1978):

Many of their off-screen relationships completely paralleled the story, and one of our main problems was to encourage them to be uninhibited within the shots but disciplined in between them.... My experience showed me that the only falsification in Golding’s fable is the length of time the descent to savagery takes. His action takes about three months. I believe that if the cork of continued adult presence [i.e., of external checks and balances on the group’s leaders] were removed from the bottle, the complete catastrophe could occur within a long weekend.

One may, of course, validly compare that with the role-playing in Zimbardo’s study—and in each of our real lives—which quickly ceases to be just a conscious “role.” And as far as “long weekends” go: The degeneration of character in the simulated Stanford prison happened literally within three days.

In Dittmann (2003), Zimbardo further traces the parallels between the mind-control methods and behaviors utilized by George Orwell’s fictional totalitarian state in 1984, and Jonestown. Christopher Browning, in his (1998) Ordinary Men, performs a comparable mapping for the similarities between Zimbardo’s and Milgram’s studies, and the Final Solution in Poland. Significantly, the percentage of “cruel and tough,” “tough but fair,” and “good” soldiers, respectively, in that Solution, “bears an uncanny resemblance” to the comparable split among the guards in Zimbardo’s simulated prison.

[U]nder conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere....
The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal (Arendt, 1992).
* * *

All of the subjects in Zimbardo’s prison study were men. In practice, however, any minor bias which the study’s male-only nature might introduce, as to the exact percentage of guards who turned “bad” and abused their power, or of the specific ways in which they abused that power, or of the percentage of prisoners who broke down emotionally, in no way lessens the applicability of the general mapping to “all humans.”

The mixture of the sexes in Abu Ghraib again did not prevent female guards there from being among the worst alleged abusers of power. Nor did it stop nuns from force-feeding other nuns elsewhere, etc. That is, where comparable “experiments” to Zimbardo’s have been performed in the real world, they have led to exactly the same toxic environments and sadistic behaviors as were observed in the simulated prison, independent of the sexes involved.

Further, note that the majority of the participants in Zimbardo’s study were young, white Americans; there was thus also a “young, white American” bias to their behaviors. Indeed, if one were to follow all such possible claimed biases through, the results of the study could not be relevant to anyone or anywhere except ... yep, to white, healthy, intelligent, middle-class, college-age men in early-’70s Stanford, California. Yet, the elementary principles which led to the breakdown of the simulated prison society into an abusive one are relevant everywhere, in all cultures and times, for women as surely as men: They are just basic human psychology, brought out by power differentials and respect-hungering.

* * *

As Philip Zimbardo himself noted in the 1970s, high schools share a number of significant characteristics with prisons, in their respective authoritarian power structures. Yet obviously, schools do not have the same degree of isolation from outside perspectives as prisons do. Does that, then, mean that high schools and prisons are indeed different in kind, not merely in degree?

No, not at all. Even prisoners, after all, are not totally isolated: They receive visitors, at designated times. And newly incarcerated prisoners will, for a short time at least, offer real-world perspectives which have otherwise died out in prison life. Conversely, high school students cannot leave during class hours, nor drop out completely before age sixteen.

Further, if a student and a teacher disagree in a matter of discipline, or about which of them is in the wrong in a dispute, who do you think the parents are going to believe 90% of the time? Even if parent-teacher feedback and the legal system (thankfully) constrain teachers’ exercise of power, and even if the freedom to go home at night (in non-residential schools) allows the students to retain some additional outside perspective on that environment, it is again all a question of degree, not of kind. And degree = continuum. (Plus, guards in real prisons, as in Zimbardo’s simulated one, go home at night just as surely as do teachers and students, thus being integrated with their surrounding community, too. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop them from sadistically punishing their prisoners to ensure the unconditional respect of the latter ... just as teachers expect unqualified respect from their students.)

Realistically, basic principles of social psychology ensure that teachers who have been charged, as a condition of their continued employment, not merely with assisting their students in learning (as in Milgram’s obedience experiments) but with maintaining the respect and obedience of their students (as in Zimbardo’s simulated prison), will predictably degenerate into a less-intense version of good/bad prison guards when faced with any challenge to their authority.

The formation of cliques and consequent ostracism of outcastes, and the reaction of those outcastes to being stuck in that “hell on Earth” with “no way out,” play a gargantuan role in shaping the behaviors of students, even for those who have ideal home lives. Or would it surprise you to know that the shooters in the Columbine massacre came from completely stable homes, with loving parents, to whom they explicitly apologized on videotape prior to the planned massacre?

At Columbine in 1999, and in other similar shootings, the assassins were not “bringing their dysfunctional home lives into school.” Rather, they were reacting to the harassment and humiliation which they experienced from other students and authorities in school. That, after all, is why such young mass murderers kill their classmates and teachers, not their parents or neighbors.

And if that is true of the perpetrators of the worst of high-school tragedies, don’t you think it might also apply, at lower levels of intensity, even to the bulk of the high-school student population? Of course it will.

* * *
[I]t seems to me that what went on at Naropa, although more dramatic than what we usually see around us, was simply the lurid equivalent of what endlessly repeats itself in America in most systems of coercive authority, not only those at Naropa....
Trungpa’s behavior toward Merwin and Dana was essentially no different—in essence or extent—from what we ordinarily accept without question between doctors and mental patients, or teachers and students, or military authorities [or guards and prisoners]. It is here, where we always think discipline is necessary, that we habituate people to doing what they’re told, to acceding to authority, and to accepting without question the ways they are treated (Marin, 1995).

There will always be those who are prone to feeling, especially from a safe distance, that being a subject in ashramic “experiments” comparable to Zimbardo’s or Milgram’s, with real (psychological) shocks and physical deprivations in closed hierarchical environments, could be spiritually beneficial. (Note, though, that significant concerns have been raised by psychologists regarding the effects on the subjects in both of those classic studies, to the point where neither of them can be repeated today, simply for ethical considerations. And yet, ashram life continues....)

Short of that myopia, however, the rules and behaviors of the open-society “real world,” constricting though they may be at times, begin to look relatively benign by comparison. Conversely, if one has been on the inside of our world’s ashrams and then left because being there felt like a “prison,” that feeling has a very simple explanation. For, structurally and in terms of individual and group psychological dynamics, that is exactly what it was.

As Zimbardo himself (1971) put it:

For me, a prison is any situation in which one person’s freedom and liberty are denied by virtue of the arbitrary power exercised by another person or group.

And elsewhere, with his colleagues:

The inherently pathological [italics added] characteristics of the prison situation itself ... were a sufficient condition to produce aberrant, anti-social behavior (Haney, et al., 1973).

And, as we have seen, nearly identical characteristics are sufficient to produce the same reported pathological behaviors in the leaders and residents of our world’s ashrams and monasteries.

Only three things are really needed in order to begin creating a closed, toxic environment—whether that be a “cult,” a bad marriage, a prison or a dictatorship. And those are (i) a significant power differential between the leaders and their followers, (ii) a lack of checks and balances on the leaders to keep them from abusing their existing power and grabbing for more, and (iii) sufficient psychological, financial and/or physical (e.g., locks and bars) constraints to keep the mistreated followers from simply leaving. The increasingly “cult-like” nature of the environment will then follow straightforward, simply via the presence of basic human psychology in both the leaders/guards and their followers/prisoners.

Further, as in Zimbardo’s study, the only necessary difference between those two groups is in the roles which they have tacitly agreed to play. That is so, even while the one group invariably turns quickly into a split collection of impotent “good guards/disciples” and sadistic “Nazis,” while members of the other set either follow docilely or break down emotionally, yet are unable to “just leave.”

Author’s note: Since I wrote this chapter in 2004, the Stanford Prison Experiment has come under increased scrutiny not merely for the obvious ethical questions but even for the basic experimental design and the generality of Zimbardo’s conclusions. Those critiques are collected in a “Criticism and Response” section in Wikipedia and also, perhaps more damningly, in Ben Blum’s “The Lifespan of a Lie.”

Zimbardo has responded adequately to those criticisms here.

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