When we talk about cults, we use words like “brainwashed” and “thought control” a lot– so how could something like hypnotherapy help people who have left high-control organizations like cults? The answer may surprise you.
Today, I want to share some thoughts about Jonam Ross’s podcast, Religion Rehab. You can listen to it here on Spotify. I sat down with him to talk about Witness Underground, the musical subculture that developed within the confines of the cult, and how what we know can help other ExJWs.
Freedom of Thought
An important thread that runs through my work and Jonams’ work is freedom of thought. Part of the high level of control that the organization manifests is thought control. The leadership uses thought-stopping techniques to exert their control, but even within the cult, there are ways towards self-expression– like music. The desire for self-expression and free thought is an integral part of being human, and wanting this freedom is one reason people leave.
Hypnotherapy is different than other types of mental health therapy. It might be more helpful to think of it as a tool you use occasionally rather than a therapy modality like talk therapy. You can use this tool to help you work through religious trauma as it arises– once you’ve learned how to do it, you will have the skills forever.
But why does it work? How can hypnotherapy strengthen your independence and help you process your thoughts and emotions?
“As I Speak, So I Create”
Words have power, and the things we say to ourselves can create our futures. Our attitudes and the way we phrase things have impacts on our outlook– for example, if you say things like “I’m not the kind of person who does XYZ,” that’s a prediction into the future. It rules out the idea that you can learn and do something new. You’re creating a limitation just by speaking it into existence.
Our mind sees the world through the images it creates. The subconscious doesn’t work in negatives– it just perceives what you do. If you try not to think of something, you’ll be drawn to thinking of that thing, because the suggestion is already there. If you hear “think of an elephant,” your mind immediately pictures an elephant. But if you hear the words “don’t think of an elephant,” you’ll create a picture of an elephant anyways.
This is why negative framings don’t communicate well. If you want to remember something, say “remember” instead of “don’t forget.” Putting a positive spin on the language you’re trying to communicate to both yourself and others creates a more useful association in your mind.
If you’ve ever heard the magic word “abracadabra,” you’ve heard of this idea. Although it certainly seems hokey today, the word has its roots in an Aramaic phrase meaning “I create as I speak” or “As I speak, so I create.” That speaks to the power of words. Even the phrasing we choose has an impact on how we perceive the world. It’s exactly the principle that makes hypnotherapy function.
We’re all hypnotizing ourselves every day with the messages we send. The words we say are affirmations, even if they’re unintentional. “I can’t do this” doesn’t sound like a typical affirmation, but by buying into these negative messages and thought patterns, you’re creating a negative reality that doesn’t align with what you really want.
For former Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s the little things that stick. Long after we’ve disavowed the thoughts of the 144,000 or the Great Tribulation, the echoes of thought control keep us programming ourselves to stay in the little cages we’ve constructed. Anything that can help us get out of those cages and see them from a different perspective is valuable for creating a better, healthier approach to the world.
Guided Meditation and Taking Back Your Thoughts
One part of the hypnotherapy that Jonam does is guided meditation. If you’ve never meditated before, this may seem intimidating. After all, the organization doesn’t exactly want you meditating on your inner thoughts and feelings! They’d much rather keep you thinking about their arbitrary rules and the other oppressive elements they use to control you. This includes things like poring over their literature, studying to prepare for Kingdom Hall meetings and other religious activities, and taking notes that reinforce the ideas they want to be embedded in your mind. They want you to spend so much time going over their information that there isn’t room or time in your life for anything else.
One interesting element of this is how media produced by JWs (but not by the governing body) almost seems like worldly media. When the bands who I made Witness Underground about were playing together, the church discouraged them from singing about their love for God, or any other element of their faith. This hints at something important– why would a religion that ostensibly proselytizes during door-knocking not want its members to share their faith through music?
Other Christian groups evangelize through music, but not the Witnesses– because their evangelization isn’t really about winning new converts. It’s primarily about control and creating a persecution complex in its members. By controlling what you can or can’t say, they control your thoughts. They create so much noise that you can hardly hear yourself think! That’s where meditation can help.
No matter what your faith outlook is after you’ve left, or as you’re thinking about leaving, meditation is a helpful tool. When you meditate, you’ll be confronted by the thoughts in your head. Those thoughts aren’t you– they’re just ideas. You can accept them or reject them, or let them control you. But they’re just thoughts. When you’re meditating, you have a better awareness of your thoughts. It’s easier to recognize them– and to realize that you’re getting lost in your thoughts. Meditation can help you reset and focus.
While some people like basic still or silent meditation, music can also be an important part of the healing process through meditation. There’s something that speaks to our cores in music and percussion, and music can help overcome any anxiety or distractions keeping you preoccupied. An aspect of Jonam’s work that I enjoyed was a hypnotherapy trance session. It was a half-hour-long experience with a beautiful soundscape alongside the narration.
Now, every person will resonate with sounds differently. Some of us find peace in the growly distortion of guitar pickups, or rhythms that wouldn’t be out of place at a punk show. Others prefer a calmer experience. You may need to experiment to find out what works best for you!