What is Sensory Deprivation?
Sensory deprivation is a tactic sometimes used in self-help contexts. It involves reducing or completely eliminating stimuli to the senses by using tools like blindfolds, earmuffs or even sensory deprivation tanks. In small doses, sensory deprivation can be relaxing, and for this reason it is often used as a meditation tool. Eliminating stimuli such as light or sound can help one retreat inward and focus. So for example, many people have “meditation rooms” where they will keep a quiet atmosphere, perhaps blocking out the light, to help them find stress relief or focus.
Extended deprivation, however, can lead to adverse outcomes such as suggestibility, hallucinations or even symptoms of psychosis. This sort of extreme sensory deprivation is often employed in torture and interrogation techniques.
What does this have to do with self-help?
This is another example of a self-help practice that can easily go wrong and create a dangerous situation, especially in the hands of a “guru” who is either uneducated about the dangers or who is deliberately pushing the limits. In fact, some self-help “practice” sees hallucination or altered mental state as a goal. The goal would be to “come into contact with one’s subconscious” to gain “mental clarity.” And if you have a hallucination, that would likely be a powerful experience, perhaps proof you are “getting your money’s worth.” Self-help gurus may also use the suggestibility aspect–to encourage participants to purchase more of the self-help product, or to push them to participate in other extreme events.
Sensory Deprivation in Action
At James Ray’s Spiritual Warrior retreat in October 2009 in which 3 people died, it is likely that some of the activities leading up to the sweat lodge contributed to the deaths of the participants. Participants were weakened and suggestible after seclusion and other forms of deprivation. Participants were encouraged to forgo sleep, they were physically isolated from each other, denied food and water during a 36 hour “vision quest,” all the while being assured that such deprivation would “sharpen their mental focus.” This may have made it more likely for them to ignore their own bodies distress signals or be persuaded by encouragement to stay in the tent, despite the overwhelming heat.
These are exactly the types of practices one has to be wary of when participating in a self-help event. We call it self-help, but many of the techniques that gurus use dangerously, such as sensory deprivation, can cause you to lose sight of your self completely. It’s exactly these types of practices that seekers need to be aware of so you can protect yourself as you improve yourself. We will continue to explore the potentially dangerous use of sensory deprivation techniques and other tactics used by self-help leaders. Another good resource is to consult the Red Flags to be aware of when considering self-help resources.