Saturday, March 7, 2009

Psychopathology of cults


Mati Lieblich will never forget the day she realized that a man who had been coming to her house for half a year and taking an active part in the study group she started was considered a dangerous guru.

At first she couldn't sleep at night. "He knew where I lived," she says about the sense of terror that overtook her. "He knew my son, he sat in my living room and learned from me."

She consulted with colleagues who warned her, and advised her to stop the relationship with the controversial man. But Lieblich saw an opportunity to try to understand the spiritual-psychological processes that create mentors who enslave their students' souls.

As a psychologist who had studied for her master's degree at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco - in the Eastern-Western psychology track, which combines the modern Western approach with the Eastern-spiritual approach - it was a professional challenge. The study group that met at her home was meant for therapists.

"They were all adults, with a lot of experience," she says. "An older man sat with us, who used to come with a young woman who wrote things down for him. He didn't introduce himself as a teacher, and at that point I didn't know that she was his student. She existed and was non-existent. She never spoke."

The group met once a week for almost a year.

"Slowly but surely, he began to tell us that he was a teacher," she says. "He began to reveal horrifying stories. He said that someone in his group had a problem of great anger, and he had advised him to initiate a traffic accident and then get out of the car and shout at the man with whose car he had collided on purpose. And I sat and listened, and all the warning signs were already flashing."

At that point, Lieblich turned to a friend who is an expert in the field, and asked about the man. "My friend reacted sharply. It turns out that he's one of the dangerous gurus operating here in Israel. And this was the first time I had to deal with the question of 'What do I do with this phenomenon?' I understood that this was a man who imposed thought control on his group, prevented people from getting into contact with their families, prevented them from sleeping, shook them up in front of the group and undermined everything they did. He moves them around among jobs, tells them to leave temporary jobs and transfers them from one job to another, and they don't settle down anywhere. And this man was sitting in my living room? Learning from me?" [...]

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