Groups, Cults, & the “8 Elements of Brainwashing”: Part 3 – Mystical Manipulation

October 6, 2021

This is the third post in the series on manipulative persuasion, considering the eight aspects identified by psychologist Robert Lifton. As noted in the introduction, the second of these was summarised by the anti-cult activist Rick Ross:

Mystical Manipulation — The manipulation of experiences that appears spontaneous but is, in fact, planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority, spiritual advancement, or some exceptional talent or insight that sets the leader and/or group apart from humanity, and that allows reinterpretation of historical events, scripture, and other experiences. Coincidences and happenstance oddities are interpreted as omens or prophecies.

The performance of apparent miracles through deliberate and pre-planned deception is of course well known in religious and spiritual history. Such deceits, however, always involve a certain tawdriness as well as the risk of exposure.

More commonly today, mystical manipulation takes on the form referred to in the final sentence above– the interpretation of happenstance and coincidences in a manner that aggrandises the teachings, or the teacher.

Unlike deliberate deception and magic tricks, this form of manipulation entails little chance of exposure, and requires no set-up. “Everything happens for a reason”, or — more esoterically — “There are no coincidences.” Therefore, the Universe has guided you to join this group, to read this book, or to listen to this bloated goon promote his product.

There has never been an easier sales pitch. You can know that you need this product simply because you’ve seen it! …….At this portentous moment.

It even comes with a built-in escape clause: if the product fails, well, that also happens for a reason — the customer simply failed to follow the instructions properly, or gave up too soon. Bruce Lipton calls such people “spiritual drop-outs” (rather than victims).

There is of course a degree of truth in the idea that our thoughts and emotions affect the way we experience the world and influence events. Similar ideas appear in various traditions and religions, though usually not in such deterministic terms. However, what makes this modern version unique is that the idea has now been transformed into a product, often with a complete business plan attached to it.

In the 1950s Norman Vincent Peale developed his “Power of Positive Thinking” scam, which itself was derived from various early forms of the idea that prayer can be used as an earthly power for earthly gains. The subsequent New Age “law of attraction” is exactly the same thing, only using quantum physics instead of Jesus.

The highly successful film The Secret by Rhonda Byrne added further layers to it, including an entirely fabricated history. (The supposed “secret” was claimed to have been known and used by the likes of Plato, Newton, Emerson and Einstein, despite fact that it has either nothing to do with or directly contradicts neo-Platonism, Alchemy, and every aspect of classical and modern physics. Even the quote from Emerson that opens the film was simply made up.)

Byrne, according to the film, was deeply unhappy. Her life was going nowhere and her father had just died. Then her five year old daughter gave her a book with a note saying “This will help, Mama.” The film implies, with the use of subliminal images, that the child was mystically inspired by Byrne’s dead father to give her the book.

This is a smart move by the film makers. No one thinks of critically analysing a child’s gift, and the viewer watches Byrne’s reaction without realising that the film is modeling a sequence of behaviours that the viewer will soon find themselves replicating.

Byrne examines the book’s contents and begins to wonder if maybe she has created her own sadness, and maybe she can attract happiness into her life if she follows the instructions. She goes online to check the origins of the book and is awe struck when she (supposedly) discovers the book’s (utterly fabricated) history. She winds up lying on a bed having an erotic encounter with the idea of The Secret, represented by Albert Einstein’s image. Afterwards she goes online again to see if anyone else today knows the same Secret that Einstein and all the Great Men of History knew. And she finds them! (At this point, five minutes into the film, there is a grating shift to the mundane and bombastic presentations of the long list of law of attraction scammers who appear in the film.)

Mapped out here is the sequence of behaviours that the viewer will unwittingly find themselves replicating, only with a few of the roles switched. Instead of receiving The Secret as a gift from a child, they have got it as a gift from whoever told them about it and sent them the link — when the film was freely available for a period online, as gift “from the very rich people who have discovered how to use this secret and are sharing it freely with everyone” (to quote the person who sent the link to me!).

What kind of person critically evaluates a gift, for heavens sake? (As I was also asked by the same person!) Thus the viewer is drawn personally into the drama and storyline of the film. They don’t need to go online to research it because Byrne did all that for them and told them what is there. All they need to do is watch the rest of the film, or a bit of it, and send it — as a gift — to someone else. (To someone whose life could be spiritually improved by becoming extremely wealthy.)

There is an even deeper aspect to mystical manipulation being practiced here, though less deliberate.

This “law of attraction” ideology leads customers to see the world as nothing more than “a vast mail-order catalogue” (to quote the scammer Joe Vitale in the film)– no mystery, no ethics or morality. Just the belief that you are entitled to grab whatever comes within reach. If you can get your hands on it, it means you deserve it. If anyone gets hurt by the grabbing, it’s their own fault for not manifesting a better fate for themselves.

The mindset that this kind of thinking inevitably leads to is similar to that of a psychopath or sociopath. It purifies it however, by labeling it “spiritual”.

Same with all the various forms of charismatic miracle churches. the dominating behaviour of the leader is excused as being inspired by a higher source or purpose. In effect, however, this form of mystical manipulation merely opens a space for the leader to establish dominance, by switching off the normal psychological defenses and protection mechanisms.


  • If a teacher claims to be able to create their own reality using the law of attraction, it is a red flag if you see them get handcuffed and dragged off to prison.
Detective Ross Diskin & James Ray: not much attraction, plenty of law
  • Related to this, how does a law of attraction-style teacher deal with unfortunate events in their own life? Do they accept responsibility and try to alter their thoughts and actions, or do they ignore their own prior teachings? James Ray, for example, paid 5 million dollars for a team of lawyers to argue the whole thing was an accident over which he had no control.
  • Does the teacher merely look to outsiders like a dangerous psychopath because they are acting according to the higher laws of the spirit, or are they really genuinely dangerous? Their apparent arrogance, mania, and indifference to the suffering of others might actually genuine.
  • A sales pitch that appeals to pity and reveals private details that it would be impolite to question should be seen as a red flag. Watch especially for the hard sell to be linked to the emotional high point of the mystically manipulative story.
  • The ‘riches-to-rags-to-riches’ formula is so ubiquitous as a sales pitch among known scammers that it can be treated as a red flag. Where possible check the facts, and note any absence of evidence. Best of all, find earlier versions of the story and note the changes.
  • Does the author claim that God more or less wrote their book? Okay…. But what would you think of the same contents if they were simply presented without all the divine fanfare? The same holds of course for contents dictated by angels or aliens or ascended masters or spirit guides, etc.
  • Is the teacher really as rich as they present themselves to be, or are they merely driving a rented Limo, wearing a rented suit, and just winging it?


  1. I forgot how blatant the Secret was. Somebody actually made up all those lies and cunningly crafted the scam to drag as many people in as possible. Individuals along the way may have been gullible fantasists, but not at its inception. There are probably cults that are almost entirely innocent, due to our natural human failings – most religions I suppose.

    Yeah, the perpetrators give the game away when they ignore their own teachings. James Ray’s $5M legal case arguing he wasn’t responsible is a perfect example, when his entire schtick was telling people the opposite, you’re responsible for everything you get! I do still wonder whether it’s possible to be so mentally defective, however, that you can flip from believing the message to doubting it entirely. In the photo, he could be trying to manifest a hand-gun! 😉 I mean, maybe he thinks he’s failed at the stuff he was teaching, and if he just tried hard enough…bam! We often turn to irrational ways out when we’re in extreme crisis…which is why cults pray on vulnerable people.

    I naturally want to relate these elements to my therapy training, which was the nearest thing I knew to a cult. I remember we did an experiment into “the collective unconscious”, an idea I continued to believe in for some time after. I wish I could remember the details, but it was one of those where a guy left the room and the rest of us came up with a word – probably telling ourselves, “choose something he wouldn’t ever think of” – and then he came back and the big reveal happened. I thought at the time it went like this: we said, “we thought of a word – what is it?” and he came out with it right off the bat. Now, I suspect there was a lot more to it, some of those cold reading tricks or something, and I am pretty sure it wasn’t just immediate like that. However, I was expecting it to fail and thinking that it seemed to work. I remember wondering if in fact it was set up. It might have been. The teacher might have primed him in some way, I’ve no idea. Or there might be a collective unconscious we tapped into that day, of course, being so great and wonderful and spiritual a community!

    This is a brilliant series, thanks mate.

  2. Thanks for commenting, John — always very much appreciated!

    Ray was doing basically the same hand gesture in court — making a triangle to shoot around “energy” or something. Some of his ex-followers were commenting on it during the trial, and the prosecutors confirmed that (to them privately) that he was indeed using his hands like that a lot of the time.

    From his behaviour during the fatal incidents, it looks to me like he genuinely believed that his followers were “creating their own reality”, as they were lying motionless and not breathing. “Not breathing?”, he said, according to several witness statements in court. And “Leave her alone, she’s having her own experience.” –As people were pleading with him to open the door of the sweat lodge.

    It seems to have made him feel invulnerable. I think quite a few of them genuinely believe it, and then make up excuses when it goes wrong.

    Interesting story from your training. I experienced quite a few odd things over the years, but in context, the idea of them proving the supernatural would miss the point or trivialise it.

    I have also seen (and done) plenty of attempts at esoteric reading that were totally wrong too, though!

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