Issue: Is the Transcendental Meditation Program a cult?
The Transcendental Meditation program cannot be called a cult because it develops independent, intelligent, creative thinking, and its founder, Maharishi, has in many ways encouraged personal independence, integration with society, and good citizenship.
Table Comparing the Transcendental Meditation Program and Cults
How the TM technique Differs from Hypnosis
Maharishi is the Opposite of a Cult Leader
Swami Muktananda on Maharishi
Cult Expert Writes on the TM Program
The word “cult” has many meanings, but in recent decades it has often been used with a negative connotation to point out a group that others would like to see removed from society. This use of the term is expressed by the prominent religious scholar J. Gordon Melton:
"My working definition of a cult is a group that you don't like, and I say that somewhat facetiously, but at the same time, in fact, that is my working definition of a cult. It is a group that somebody doesn't like. It is a derogatory term, and I have never seen it redeemed from the derogatory connotations that it picked up in the sociological literature in the 1930s." (1).
Some psychologists and psychoanalysts have used their personal definition of mind control as “expert testimony” in legal proceedings against New Age groups on the behalf of various special interest groups who want to see them censured by society. However, this endeavor has not gained the support of the scientific community.
“A report on brainwashing and mind control presented by an American Psychological Association (APA) task force known as the APA Taskforce on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of Persuasion and Control (DIMPAC), chaired by Singer, was rejected in 1987 by the APA's Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology (BSERP) as lacking "the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach necessary for APA imprimatur," and cautioned the task force members to "not distribute or publicize the report without indicating that the report was unacceptable to the Board."
The table below list factors related to cults along with evidence showing that the Transcendental Meditation program is the opposite of cults on every point.
Table Comparing the Transcendental Meditation Program and Cults.
Factors Related to Cults
Transcendental Meditation Program
Mind Control. Cults may use mind control techniques, such as peer pressure, to gain control over the behavior or their members (2, 3).
No Mind Control. The Transcendental Meditation program does not use any the mind control techniques. It is a simple, natural, effortless process that one does by oneself, which allows the mind to settle to its own quite level. (4). No one else is involved.
Stress, Fear, and Weaknesses. Cults prey on the individual’s stresses, fears, and weaknesses, and may use various techniques to amplify these factors to make the person more susceptible to manipulation (2).
Deep Rest to Normalize Stress and Fear, and Improve Health. The TM technique protects the individual from cults by strengthening the mind and body. It does this by providing a state of deep rest and reduced stress (5-8)—one that is different from sleep (5-8) and deeper rest than that provided by ordinary relaxation with eyes closed (9). This unique physiological state allows the body to heal itself through its intrinsic self-repair mechanisms. It increases orderliness of brain functioning (5-8, 10-29), reduces anxiety (30), and improves health (31-45)
Disintegration through Drugs and Fatigue. Cults may use drugs and fatigue to cause the brain to become incoherent and the person disoriented, making him/her more susceptible to suggestion and manipulation (2, 3, 46).
Increased Integration. The coherent restfully-alert state experienced during TM practice habituates the system to function in a more integrated style outside of meditation as well (5-45), making the individual less susceptible to suggestion and manipulation by cults or by anyone else.
Uncritical Thinking and Field Dependence. Cults promote uncritical thinking and use indoctrination to gain adherence to a dogmatic philosophy (2, 3). For example, people prone to join cults are more field dependent, which means that they look to others to structure their lives for them (47).
Increased Critical Thinking and Field Independence. Field independence is measured by perceptual tests, which reflect the ability to structure the perceptual, cognitive, and social fields. It is highly correlated with the ability to see another person’s perspective, yet resist social control and persuasion when it runs counter to one’s own evaluation of the situation and values (47). Controlled research, including randomized designs, has demonstrated that TM practice increases field independence (45-49), indicating increased cognitive structuring ability, the basis of personal freedom from persuasion and influences of outside control over one’s person.
Indoctrination and Dogma. Cults may use various indoctrination techniques to promote allegiance to a rigid dogmatic philosophy or worldview (2,3).
Improved Flexibility and Efficiency of Visual Cognitive Processes. The TM program has been shown to increase freedom from habitual patterns of perception but at the same time increase the ability to use such patterns effectively, where appropriate (53). This basic improvement in cognitive neurophysiology, along with increases in field independence and intelligence, decrease susceptibility to indoctrination.
Low General Cognitive Ability and Intelligence. Cults appeal to people with low intelligence, who by definition, have less critical thinking ability, and therefore are more susceptible to cult manipulation.
Increased General Cognitive Ability and Intelligence. TM practice increases fluid general intelligence, the ability to act intelligently in novel situations (49, 54). This finding, along with increases in creativity and field independence, indicates increased cognitive structuring ability, which enables a person to be more self organizing and less under the power of others.
Decreased Decision Making Ability. Cults may prey on a person’s inability to make decisions when faced with many choices. Moreover, they may seek to weaken the person’s decision making ability in order to control their behavior.
Increased Decision Making Ability. Research has shown that TM practice improves performance on correlates of general intelligence, including choice reaction time (54). Choice reaction time measures the ability to quickly react when presented with several choices. It indexes the speed of the attentional/decision making mechanisms of the brain.
Instability of Attention. Cults may also prey on a person’s inability to pay attention, which could be due to fatigue, stress, or drugs.
Increased Stability of Attention. Another correlate of intelligence is the standard deviation of choice reaction time (54), which is a measure of the ability to sustain focused attention. Standard deviation of choice reaction time measures the trial to trial variability in choice reaction time. If attention tends to wander, due to stresses or distracting thoughts, then the speed of one’s reaction time will vary greatly from one moment to the next. More intelligent individuals are found to have more stable choice reaction time from trial to trial, indicating system stability. This stability of the attentional system increases with TM practice (54), which would be expected to increase resistance to control by others.
Poor Information Processing. People can only be seduced into a cult if they process information poorly.
Improved Information Processing. Another correlate of intelligence is inspection time, which TM practice also improves (49). Inspection time is thought to be a measure of short-term memory, which is basic to information processing. One has to retain new information in short-term stores for it to be processed properly. Improvements in basic cognitive abilities such as intelligence, choice reaction time, standard deviation of reaction time, and inspection time give a person the aptitude to evaluate false doctrines perpetrated by cults, politicians, and others.
Low Creativity. People who are low on creativity are susceptible to cults, because they have less ability to formulate their own direction in life, and consequently become dependent on others to lead them.
Increased Creativity. TM practice increases flexibility and originality of pictorial (figural) creativity as well as verbal fluency (49, 55). These improvements in creativity, along with increased field independence and intelligence, indicate a stronger mind that would be less susceptible to control by others.
Powerlessness and Low Self-Actualization. Another factor which may draw people into cults is powerlessness and lack of personal fulfillment. Some people may feel that the cult offers some sense of community, excitement, or meaning that is lacking in their lives (3). Moreover, cults may try to make people powerless in order to take over their lives.
Increased Self-Actualization. Self actualization is widely held to describe the most self empowered, healthiest, creative people in society (56). A meta-analysis of 42 studies showed that the TM program was three times more effective in increasing self-actualization than other meditation and relaxation techniques (57).
Low Maturity. Suggestibility tends to be low in childhood, to reach a peak at the onset of adolescence, and to decrease again in the middle aged and elderly (58). This explains why adolescents or immature adults are more prone to cults.
Increased Ego Development and Moral Reasoning. The Loevinger (59) test of ego development provides outer behavioral 'signs' of internal shifts in self-organization to more mature levels. Research has shown that TM practice accelerates development in children, adolescents, and prison inmates, and advances ego development in young adults (60-65). This was predicted to result from association of the awareness of the knower (the ego) with progressively deeper levels of the mind through TM practice (61).
For example, over a one year period, prison inmates practicing the TM technique progressed on average from the "conformist" stage, corresponding to a dominance of concrete thinking, to the "self aware" stage, corresponding to a dominance of the onset of reflective functioning of the intellect (64). The development of reflective thinking is another indication of increased cognitive restructuring ability that underlies the ability to think for oneself and not come under the sway of others. A practical consequence of increased reflective thinking is that prisoners who learned the TM technique while in prison showed a lower rate of return to prison after they were released compared to those in other programs (65).
Frozen Development. Ego development typically freezes by around 18-20 years of age or by the end of formal education. For example, college graduates do not typically develop further after graduating (59, 60, 66).
Unfrozen Development. A longitudinal study using Loevinger’s test found that 10 years after graduating from college young adults who participate in the TM and TM-Sidhi program reached higher levels of cognitive development than any sample previously reported in the field (66). The control groups showed the typical finding of little ego development after college, whereas the TM group showed an unprecedented continued increase.
A further study of 45 males with over 10 years of TM experience used modified instructions sensitive to potential high level responders and found 87% were above the highest level typically reached by adults (the conscientious level). The majority of TM subjects had reached the final two stages (autonomous and integrated), which are characterized by balanced growth of affect and cognition and enhanced moral reasoning and self-actualization (66).
Dependence on Drug and Alcohol. In some cases, the non-adaptive world view of cults revolves around the altered states of consciousness produced by psychotropic drugs and alcohol (2, 3). Moreover, cult behavior bears similarities to addictions. People take drugs in an effort to self-medicate, trying to achieve a sense of balance and well being. Depression motivates taking anti-depressants. Agitation and anxiety motivate ingestion of tranquillizers, while boredom may motivate seeking psychedelics. Such imbalances in the mind and body may also motivate a person to join a cult, in the hopes of finding some solace for the imbalances in their minds and bodies.
Decreased Dependence on Substances. The deep rest afforded by TM practice increases balance in the mind and body (5-66). Consequently, the person becomes increasingly independent of the imbalances that promote dependencies, such as on drugs and alcohol or other people.
A meta-analysis of 198 studies, found that the TM technique produced substantially larger effect sizes and longer abstinence rates in decreasing drug and alcohol use than other types of meditation and relaxation techniques (biofeedback, muscle relaxation, relaxation response, cognitive affective anxiety reduction), or therapeutic probation, pharmacological intervention, educational programs, or alternative unconventional treatments (e.g. acupuncture) (67).
Isolation and Anti-SocialBehavior. Cults are closed systems, which isolate the individuals from society, and promote anti-social thinking and behavior (2, 3).
Pro-Social Behavior. Maharishi and members of the TM community have a history of open, public, scientific, and scholarly debate. For example, the faculties of Maharishi University of Management and Maharishi European Research Universe have a 38-year record of publishing in peer-reviewed journals, as can be seen from searching Google Scholar. They have participated in numerous professional conferences in their fields and have won over $24 million in highly competitive grants from the National Institutes of Health for research projects involving close collaboration with other universities. The faculty of MUM have won academic recognition in many areas. The Maharishi School has won more awards in the arts and sciences than any other school in Iowa or the United States. This kind of open participation in the academic world is just the opposite of the closed thinking and behavior of cults.
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How the TM technique Differs from Hypnosis.
Hypnosis and hypnosis-related techniques often top the list of “mind control” techniques (2, 3). Because hypnosis is the most well-known and researched technique of mind control, it is instructive to see how it differs from the Transcendental Meditation technique.
First of all, as a point of clarification, physiological research has failed to find a physiologically unique “hypnotic trance,” and the very existence of such a trance is highly debatable (69). In fact, one study has found that hypnotic suggestion works even while the hypnotic subject is working on a stationary exercise bicycle (70). This indicates that, contrary to the popular image of the hypnotized person lying or sitting stunned in a semi-comatose state under the control of the hypnotist, the person does not even have to be relaxed for hypnotic suggestion to work. Thus, the interpretation made by some that the physiological state produced during the TM technique is a “trance” has no validity if the parameters characterizing a trance cannot even be defined.
This does not mean, however, that hypnosis, or perhaps more simply, suggestion, does not have real effects. These have been documented and need to compared with the TM program.
Whereas the effects of hypnosis originate from suggestion (70), either to oneself in self-hypnosis, or from the hypnotist, there is no suggestion involved in the TM technique. As documented above, the Transcendental Meditation technique works by producing a state of deep relaxation, which is more healing and effective than the forms of rest produced by other meditation and relaxation techniques.
Hypnotic suggestion does have effects on the brain, but they are specific to what is suggested. For example, neuroimaging studies have shown that hypnotic suggestion of “pain” increases activity in the pain pathways of the brain (71), whereas suggestion of visual images increases activity in the visual cortex (72).
Unlike suggestion, the effects of the Transcendental Meditation technique are general rather than specific. Research has shown that the deep rest produced by TM practice produces a broad spectrum of beneficial effects on health, mental potential, social behavior, and world peace.
Suggestion is not only not involved in TM practice, it is counterproductive to its success. It is very important to the meditation process that one be completely innocent with no expectation of any particular outcome (4). This is because any expectation on the part of the meditator produces mental activity, which, by definition, can only keep the mind in an active state and prevent it from settling down to its silent state of restful alertness, transcendental consciousness (4, 19).
Some have alleged that the effects of the Transcendental Meditation program are due to suggestion of benefits during the introductory lectures. The standard introductory lectures do review the scientific research, origins, and mechanics of the technique. However, carefully controlled randomized clinical trials and meta-analyses have shown that the effect of TM practice are not due to placebo, suggestion, or autosuggestion.
How hypnosis decouples the volitional mechanisms of the brain and how the TM technique integrates them.
Neuroimaging studies show that hypnotic suggestion produces a functional decoupling of elements of the frontal executive control system of the brain involved in attention, evaluation and volitional action (73). For example, in one study, subjects were visually presented with words. Under hypnotic suggestion, they were told to interpret the words as strings of nonsense letters, when actually they were words. Subjects under hypnosis did report seeing nonsense strings rather than words. Their brains' corresponding showed reduced activity the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC), an area of the emotional brain (limbic system) involved in resolving conflict (74). They also showed reduced activity in the frontal cortex, the major executive area of the brain, implying relaxation of volitional control. Moreover, perceptual areas of the sensory cortex showed decreased activity, suggesting that the brains of persons who came under the sway of hypnotic suggestion actually do not process sensory input in a normal way. They appear to “see” what the hypnotist tells them to see, and stop seeing what is actually there in front of them. Reducing the activity in these areas of the brain and decoupling of the different brain components involved in attention, evaluative, and volition is tantamount to giving over the executive control of one’s own brain to the hypnotist and his suggestions.
Whereas hypnosis weakens a person by decoupling the brain, research shows that the Transcendental Meditation technique functionally couples brain areas, as indicated by increased EEG coherence and phase synchrony (13-24). EEG coherence increases within the first minute of meditation and remains high throughout the session (15). It especially increases during the deepest periods of meditation, transcendental consciousness, corresponding to the silent level of the mind (16-19). Longitudinally, EEG coherence increases outside of meditation within two weeks of TM practice (22), and it increases during a computer task, indicating the integration of transcendental consciousness with waking activity (24). The increases in coherence in the alpha frequency and frontal brain areas, which are found to increase both during and outside of TM practice, have been positively correlated with creativity (25), moral reasoning (26), flexibility of concept learning and H-reflex recovery rate (27). H-reflex has also been shown to increase through TM practice (28), and be correlated with academic performance (29).
Although EEG coherence was initially the focus of brain research on the TM technique (13-19), recently synchrony has come to the fore as providing direct evidence of functional connectivity of distant brain activities (20, 21). Interhemispheric and intrahemispheric synchrony in the alpha and theta frequencies were reported in the very earliest EEG papers on the TM technique (5-8-10, 11). However, quantification techniques for synchrony and studies of its functional significance have advanced considerably since then. This new information helps illuminate the effects of the TM technique (21).
The difference between synchrony and coherence is that phase synchrony measures the degree of leading or lagging relationship between EEG signals from two leads, whereas coherence measures the stability of the phase relation, typically without regard to the leading or lagging relation (21, 75-77) (Note that in-phase [co-phase] and out-of-phase [qua-phase] coherence can be separated, and the increased coherence in the TM studies has been found to be predominately co-phase).
Research programs unrelated to the TM technique have verified that synchrony and coherence measure functional simultaneous integration between multiple brain activities (78, 79). Synchrony and coherence increase during attention and vigilance (80), cognitive and creativity tasks (81), working memory (82, 83), multimodal perceptual processing (84), mental rotation (85), and performance on an IQ task (86). The onset of a stimulus appears to initialize the alpha rhythm to the sensory input, and good memory performers show a greater degree of phase locking of the alpha to the sensory input during recognition (87-89). Like an orchestra or any group effort, performance is better if the different functional areas of the system are synchronized at the onset. Otherwise, if the brain areas are not synchronized due to stress, fatigue, drugs, or just a wandering mind, the person does not register the incoming information, nothing is learned, no benefit is gained, and no progress is made.
Not only are EEG synchrony and coherence important for effective intake of information from the environment, they are also vital to internal “top-down” processes such interpreting sensory input, discrimination and generalization, conceptualization, and creativity. The literature suggests that they are vital to “binding” different areas needed for these processes. The EEG at frequencies that have been shown to become more coherent during TM practice are just the ones known to organize the different brain areas involved in attention, sensory processing, association, emotions, and cognition, so that they work together in a coordinated way to yield more effective styles of cognitive processing and behavior.
Clinical studies have shown that lack of EEG synchrony and coherence results in a “disconnection syndrome” characteristic of several pathological states (91). Deficiencies in phase synchrony are associated with memory loss (91), disorientation (91), and cognitive impairment in Alzheimer’s (93), and are also associated with mania, and seizures (94). Loss of cognitive ability with Alzheimer’s is associated with a decline in EEG Global Field Synchronization in the alpha, beta, and gamma frequency bands (93).
Arguably, the disconnection syndrome underlies many of the problems society faces in the areas of education, rehabilitation, aging, and other areas. Extensive evidence cross validates that the TM program re-connects the brain, just the opposite of the effects of hypnosis. TM practice increases synchrony and coherence in the brain, both during and outside the practice (10-24), in parameters that are known from research on meditators (25-29) and from basic research (75-94) to functionally bind different brain areas in preparation for effective acquisition of new information (bottom up processes) as well as for evaluation, critical judgment, comprehension, and creativity (top down processes). These laboratory studies are supported by the extraordinary advances in health, academic performance, maturation, and high quality of life of meditating students, adults, prison inmates, and the elderly, providing strong external validity (30-45-57, 59-67).
Interestingly, hypnosis only works for hypnotizable people, and the trait of hypnotizability has been studied. Research on what makes people susceptible to hypnotic suggestion may provide some insights into cult behavior, but the issue is complex. Research has shown that suggestibility is a trait that differs widely between people, and may even have a genetic component. Identical twins, for example, are more highly similar on hypnotizability than genetically unrelated people.
More broadly, the evidence supports the existence of a suggestibility trait, even in the absence of hypnosis. Some people are just more suggestible than others. Suggestibility without hypnosis has been termed “primary” or “imaginative” suggestibility. It is measured by seeing how much people respond to suggestion without hypnotic procedures being involved (58).
Developmentally, hypnotizability or suggestibility tends to be low in childhood, to reach a peak at the onset of adolescence, and to decrease again in the middle aged and elderly. This may be why youth or immature adults whose development is frozen in the adolescent level are more prone to cults. As we have seen earlier, the practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique unfreezes ego development and moral reasoning to advance beyond the adolescent stage (60-66).
Suggestibility as a talent.
Some researchers view suggestibility as a talent, which indicates the ability to engage in highly imaginative involvements, such as in drama, reading, or creative processes (59, 95). Such a talent implies a high degree of cognitive structuring ability. This in itself is a good thing, as long as it remains under the individual’s own control and is not given over to the control of others. As we have seen, research has shown that the Transcendental Meditation program does in fact strengthen the attentional control system of the brain and improve the cognitive structuring abilities of the individual. Also, as we have seen, it reduces physiological and psychological stresses, which are the “hooks” by which people can be manipulated. Thus the TM program creates an ideal pattern of improved integration of the attentional control systems of the brain and increased cognitive structuring ability, together with reduced stress and increased maturity.
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Maharishi is the Opposite of a Cult Leader.
As the scientific evidence and the record of the Maharishi universities and schools shows, what Maharishi taught—the Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi program—cultivates independent thinking, intelligence, creativity, self-actualization, and ego development, all of which strengthen individuals and make them resistant to cults.
Over five million people have learned the Transcendental Meditation technique world wide over the last 50 years. One percent of five million is 50,000, which is many more than the number of TM teachers and others participating in the TM organization. Therefore, it is safe to say that over 99% of the people who learn the technique practice it on their own and have no further contact with Maharishi or the TM teaching organization. Therefore, the issue of joining a “cult” is not even relevant for them.
Of those who elect to be part of the TM organization, few have spent much time in personal contact with Maharishi. Many times I was present when Maharishi told people to “Go back to school and get your degree.” “Follow your parent’s advice.” “Don’t take drugs.” “Follow the doctor’s advice.” “Go into society and get a job.” “Do your duty and service to your country.” Everything that Maharishi taught and did was aimed at creating more mature, better citizens and an ideal society, just the opposite of a cult leader.
There are those who are devoted to Maharishi, myself included, who think he was one of the greatest teachers of our time, the world’s leading expert on consciousness, and that what he taught is central to solving the problems of the individual and civilization. However, this perspective in not based on blind faith, but on innumerable direct experiences validating what he taught, supported by volumes of scientific research and hours of open intellectual inquiry and discussions at conferences and meetings.
I and thousands of others have been present at many open symposiums and conferences during which Maharishi discussed the latest theories and findings of modern science with the greatest intellects of our time, including Nobel Laureates and other leading scientists in physics, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, physiology, and the social sciences, as well as with prominent justices, supreme court judges, philosophers, writers, musicians, athletes, generals, economists, business people, and experts and laymen from all walks of life. Maharishi brought his vast knowledge of consciousness and the higher potentialities of human life to these discussions. These were open exchange of ideas, always punctuated with humor and grace, not the closed, guarded, dogmatic activities of a cult. It is just the opposite. It is the record of a great teacher and humanitarian.
Maharishi himself once commented: “People do not follow me, they follow their own evolution. And if they find that what I teach is useful to them, they will make use of it.” That was my story. When the TM technique came along in my life in 1970, through a good friend who told me about it, I recognized what it was about, perhaps because I had a spontaneous experience of transcending as a child. I tried it and found that it works. All the benefits that the research shows have been my experience to differing degrees and in many different ways, some sublime beyond description. So I meditate regularly and I recommend it to others. It is that simple.
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Swami Muktananda on Maharishi.
Swami Muktananda is recognized as one of the great spiritual teachers of the 20th century (96) and he knew Maharishi from his level of higher consciousness. In a commentary on Maharishi that he made to a group of meditators in Australia in the late 1970’s, Muktananda pointed out how the Transcendental Meditation program is independent of personal contact with Maharishi. Muktananda said:
"Maharishi is here for the world. You may never see Maharishi yourself, but what Maharishi has given you is a technique to clean your own self.... Your path [Transcendental Meditation and TM Sidhi program, etc] may be somewhat lonely, because you are doing the work [evolution] yourselves and you are self-sufficient. You are responsible for your own path whereas my followers come to me and I do the work for them.
“I am full of admiration for anyone on your path. It is a path of great responsibility. What I am doing is personally taking care of a small group of people, but what Maharishi is doing is giving the world a path to move to a new level, a higher level. I have full admiration for Maharishi and for each of you.”
Maharishi passed away in February 2008. He has been widely appreciated for opening the door to the scientific exploration of meditation. His programs to create an ideal education and world peace are currently being implemented throughout the world.
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