The image to the left shows Braco Ivica, a 48-year-old Croatian man known to his followers as “The Gazer”.
They believe that, if they return his gaze, he will somehow be able to ‘absorb’ their mental and physical ailments, and heal them. They make a variety of claims to this effect.
When Braco appears in public (for his followers to gaze upon him) he protects his mystique by a policy of enigmatic silence – he never, ever speaks a word. He hardly even moves. He also provides regular video feeds, enabling followers to experience his virtual gaze.
On the surface, there appears to be no similarity between Braco and Scientology. However, one of Scientology’s ‘training routines’ is actually very similar indeed to ‘gazing’. I suspect that both Braco and the TR exploit the same compelling psychological phenomenon. After that, the parallels come thick and fast.
The Power of Staring, Revisited
In a recent post I described an academic paper by a psychologist. In previous experiments, he had asked healthy volunteers to stare into a mirror. He found that, after about 10 minutes, they slipped into a dissociated state – i.e. experienced disorienting feelings of detachment and unreality. They also reported ‘strange face’ delusions, and occasionally bizarre hallucinations.
In the experiment described in my post, the same psychologist had asked healthy volunteers to stare at each other for 10 minutes. He found that this produced a similar, but far more powerful effect.
In the rest of the post, I applied these experimental findings to ‘Training Routine Zero’ (TR0). During this exercise, two Scientologists are required to sit facing each other. Each must stare fixedly into the other’s eyes for at least two hours. Ex-Scientologists commonly report experiencing vivid hallucinations during this experience.
The more intense ‘strange face’ delusions are interpreted for the beginners by experienced Scientologists, who tell them that they are proof of previous lives (the existence of which is a fundamental doctrine of Scientology). The experience is so novel and compelling that it often convinces beginners to continue their Scientology training.
Braco does something similar. He provides a live video feed of himself, ‘gazing’. This is likely to produce more potent effects than staring into a mirror, but less powerful than staring at another person in the flesh. However, Braco can simultaneously ‘gaze’ at many people at very low cost.
Could ‘Gazing’ at a live feed be the Braco follower’s equivalent to TR0? Could the dissociation that this brings about be misinterpreted as a mystical experience, encouraging the participant to believe that Braco’s ‘powers’ may be real?
Superficial Differences – Underlying Similarities
Scientology presents itself as a rigorous science and Braco presents himself as a ‘new age’ spiritual healer. On the surface, they could not be more different. However, both exploit a normal and predictable consequence of a kind of sensory deprivation.
Are they similar in other ways? They are. In fact, the longer you look, the more similarities you can see To make a start, here are five.
Scientology claims that its early training routines will teach people to communicate effectively, and that further courses will improve their IQ and memory. Ultimately, after completing OT levels they are promised that will become immune to physical illness, and posses exceptional new powers.
Braco’s organisation encourages claims that watching his video feed (or attending a live event) will bring about spiritual development and physical healing.
They both implicitly promise benefits from simple practices that are not easily attainable by conventional means (if at all).
- Credible evidence that a real ailment existed before the ‘healing’ practice took place.
- Follow-up interviews, to insure that the relief obtained was not temporary.
- Evidence that the cure was not due to another cause. Was the believer undergoing conventional medical treatment? Would the condition have gone away without ‘healing’ (as many minor ailment do)?
- Objective evidence. Many claimed benefits that are only meaningful to believers – for example, a scientologist tells you they feel have “certainly” or are “at cause” as a result of training, but can’t show you any real-world consequences of these subjective states.
The claims made by both Scientology and Braco are unfalsifiable – that is, there is a built-excuse for failure.
L Ron Hubbard specifically asserted that Scientology always worked – and if it appeared to fail in your case, this was because you had not applied it correctly. If Braco’s gaze fails to cure you, you were obviously not meditating correctly.
In both instances, apparent success is credited to the guru, and failure is all your fault. The guru can never be wrong.
Braco makes no legal claims for the efficacy of its techniques – he allows others to do this for him. The Church of Scientology requires that adherents sign legal disclaimers establishing that they have promised nothing, at almost every step of Scientology ‘training’.
Neither organisation will stand behind its claims in a court of law.
Scientology is famous for the volume of (very expensive) books, tapes, DVD and other media it sells to its followers. It also sells merchandise and endless ‘courses’ which result in certificated ‘qualifications’.
Every aspect of both operations are thoroughly monetised.
Is This a Conspiracy?
No. If you look at any two cult groups, no matter how different they appear to be on the surface you will find that they share many things in common.
Some of these similarities emerge naturally from the demand of their situation. For example, cults who freely allowed scientists to examine claims to ‘healing’ and publish their findings would not last long. It’s hardly surprising that established movements exclude scientific examination, and have excuses for doing so at the ready.
The ways in which they do this may vary. Psychics commonly claim that the presence of a sceptic destroys the effect, so scientific examination is pointless. Scientology often ascribes medical criticism to a conspiracy supposedly mounted by jealous psychiatrists. However, both tactic represent practical solutions to the same underlying problem.
Another explanation for the presence of so many underlying similarities is the concept of the cultic milieu. This suggests that the founders of cult groups encounter their basic ideas (and tactics for their implementation) through participation in a modern sub-culture of ‘seekers’.
The Cultic Milieu (and All that Jazz)
In 2002 the sociologist Colin Campbell coined the phrase “Cultic Milieu*.”A ‘milieu” is a person’s social environment, and Campbell defined the ‘cultic milieu’ as a “society of seekers” (pg127) – a subculture with iconoclastic attitudes about spirituality (and science).
Since Campbell first wrote about it in 1972, the cultural milieu has moved online become not only global, but also more easily accessible. Virtual seekers can effortlessly interact in forums to support and reinforce their shared culture.
Potential gurus use the ideas and attitudes that circulate within the cultic milieu in the same way that Jazz musicians interpret ‘standard’ melodies. The successful ones:
- Draw draw upon the pool of doctrines, practices and organisation available in the milieu, improvise, and create a novel combination.
- Have an style and interpretation which strongly appeals to a significant number of people.
- Mount a performance is so distinctive that casual listeners don’t realise that the underlying themes are not original.
They are both looking for a hit.
For example, when L Ron Hubbard, the pulp science author, created dianetics he went with what he knew. He presented a ‘healing” movement dressed up in science-fiction themes and claiming scientific authority. This style appealed to the spirit of post-war scientific optimism and to the readers of the SF pulp magazine in which dianetics was first presented.
Braco is a ‘New Age Healer’ who puts on a good performance and has found an original way to exploit the Internet. Through this medium he can reach out to an international New Age community.
While Hubbard and Braco’s presentations are different, they appeal to the exactly the same needs and vulnerabilities experienced by ‘seekers’ and rely on the same underlying pool of basic ideas.
Scientology, it seems, is not as original or as novel as it first appears.
*Campbell, Colin. The Cult, The Cultic Milieu and Secularization. A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain, SCM Press London, 1972.