Robert Jay Lifton is professor of psychiatry and psychology at the Graduate School University Center and director of The Center on Violence and Human Survival at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at The City University of New York.
Aum's environment become one
of intense ideological totalism,
in which everything had to be experienced on an all-or-nothing basis. A number of psychological patterns characterize such an environment. Most basic is mileu control,
in which all communication, including even an individual's inner communication, is monopolized and orchestrated, so that reality become the group's exclusive possession. Aum's closed subculture of guru and renunciants lent itself to an all-encompassing form of milieu control, though no such contrl can ever be complete or foolproof.
Anotgher pattern of t he totalistic environment is mystical manipulation,
systematic hidden maneuvers legitimizing all sorts of deceptions and lies in the seervice of higher mystical truths. Aum had a hierarchy of mystical manipulators, each disciple being under another's authority, reaching up to the guru himself.
In such a closed world, there is onften a demand for purity,
an insistence upon an absolute separation of the pure and the impure, good and evil, in the world in general and inside each person. In Aum, only the guru could be said to be completely pure. Disciples, even the highest ones, engaged in a perpetual, Sisyphean struggle for purity, their guilt and shame taken over by the cult if not by the guru himself.
An "ethos of confession" can provide a continuing mechanism for negative self-evaluation. In Aum, abject confession became a form of shared group arrogance in the name of humility - so that each member (and Aum as a whole) would, in Albert Camus's words, "practice the profession of penitence, to be able to end up as a judge," since "the more I accuse myself, the more I have the right to judge you."
Contemporary totalistic communities like Aum claim special access to a sacred science,
so that what are understood to be ultimate spiritual truths also become part of an ultimate science of human behavior.
There is loading of the language,
in which words become limited to those that affirm the prevailing ideological claims (Aum "truth" verses outside "defilement").
At the same time the principle of doctrine over person
requires all private perceptions to be subordinated to those ideological claims. In Aum, that meant that doubts of any kind about the guru, or about his or Aum's beliefs or actions, were attributed to a disciple's residual defilement.
Finally, in their most draconian manifestations, totalistic environments tend to press toward the dispensing of existence,
an absolute division between those who have a right to exist and those who possess no such right. That division can remain merely judgemental or ideological, but it can also become murderous, as in Aum, which rendered such a "dispensation" altruistic by offering a "higher existence" to those it killed. Aum ultimately became convinced that no one ouside the cult had the right to exist because all others, unrelated as they were to the guru, remained hopelessly defiled.
Within that totalism Aum disciples could thrive. They could embrace the extremity of the cult's ascetism as a proud disciple that gave new meaning to their lives. Above all, they could repeatedly experience altered states of consciousness, what in Aum were known as "mystical experiences." These too had a characteristic pattern: light-headedness followed by a sense of the mind leaving the body, the appearance of white or colored lights, and sometimes images either of the Buddha or of the guru.
Such altered states resulted from intense forms of religious practice - especially from the oxygen deprivation brought about by yogic rapid-breathing exercises - and, later on, from the use of drugs like LSD. But they were all attributed to the guru's unique spiritual power and so were considered indicators of one's own spiritual progress. There was nothing more important to disciples than to hold on to these mystical experiences, for which purpose they could numb themselves to immediate evidence of violence around them - or join in that violence.
There was considerable violence even in the training procedures to which disciples could be subjected: protracted immersion in extremely hot or cold water, hanging by one's feet for hours at a time, or solitary confinement for days in a tiny cell-like room that had no facilities and could become unbearably hot. Though the distinction between training and punishment often blurred, these procedures were justified by the need of the disciple to overcome the bad karma he brought to Aum or, in the phrase commonly used in the cult, to "drop karma."