Ken McLeod's six methods of mind-killing and their antidotes

The Roots of Mind-Killing

The following is a compilation of material from The Warrior's Solution: Passivity and Freedom retreat taught by Ken McLeod in 2009 and a series of newsletters he wrote and sent out in 2015 (Sources: 1, 2, 3). I was recently reminded of the concept of mind-killing, and how it works and relates to Buddhism during a week-long meditation retreat. I found the concept and antidotes so useful that I reorganized the full text of the newsletters and combined it with material from the audio recordings to present everything in one location.

In a follow up post, I will do an original analysis relating the six methods of mind-killing to Jordan Peterson's concept of 'ideological possession'.

*Ken notes that although the term 'mind-killing' is not used explicitly, Naom Chomsky describes the six methods below in the documentary Manufacturing Consent.

What is Mind-Killing?
Mind-killing is the use of your own patterns of emotional reaction to lead you to do what another person, a system, or even your own patterns of reaction want you to do.
The techniques of mind-killing have been carefully honed in politics, advertising, marketing, public relations and many other areas of modern life. They also operate internally. The genius of mind-killing is that most people do not know they are being manipulated. They feel they are doing what is in their interests and, in effect, destroy themselves.

To be awake and aware requires that you have enough free attention to recognize and counteract mind-killing, whether it comes in the form of personal interactions, of the social conditioning that we are subjected to through the media, or of the voices that your patterns use to preserve and maintain their operation.

Another way, mind-killing refers to a set of techniques by which an entity or a system manipulates people to act in its own interests. It does this by killing their ability to act in their own interests. The entity may be a pattern that operates in you, or it could be a family member or your family system. It could be an institution (educational, medical, professional or religious). It could be a corporation, or the advertisers and marketers and public relations people that serve its interests. Or it could be a politician, a government agency, society or the culture at large.


The six methods of mind-killing can be grouped according to the Buddhist concept of the three poisons. In Buddhism, the three poisons; attraction, aversion and indifference, are the most basic forms of emotional reaction.

The first pair of methods, alignment and seduction, both subvert your own desires, the second pair, polarization and reduction, incite your anger or aversion to serve the system's interests. The third pair, marginalization and framing are methods that play on the reactive pattern of ignoring.
  1. Seduction: Survival, one's own survival, one's capacity to influence or your identity are made to depend on the system.
  2. Alignment: The interests of the system are presented as fulfilling your emotional needs.
  3. Reduction: Complex subjects are reduced to a single, emotionally charged issue.
  4. Polarization: Issues are presented in such a way that you are either right or wrong.
  5. Marginalization: Issues that threaten the system are made to seem unimportant
  6. Framing: The terms of a debate are set so that issues that threaten the system cannot be articulated or discussed.
In order to recognize the operation of mind-killing, you have to have to be able to actively question what is being presented to you. From this perspective, the auto-anesthesia induced by almost any media technology (books, newspapers, magazines, television, computers, video-games, etc.) makes us susceptible to manipulation by those who know how to use those media. All these technologies bring extraordinary benefits in terms of access to information and richness of life, but they also make us vulnerable to manipulation and control precisely because they induce a kind of sleep.

The Six Methods of Mind-Killing

Attraction: Seduction and Alignment

Either you need the system or you're persuaded that the system needs you

In seduction, you are led to feel that the fulfillment of your dreams depends on your doing what the other person (or the system or your own patterns) is encouraging you to do. In mind-killing, there is always an implicit threat, and it is the fear evoked by that threat that is used to coerce or manipulate you.

In the case of seduction, the threat is that your dreams will never be realized unless you do what is being asked of you. The threat is rarely made explicit. To do so would make it possible to examine it objectively and it would lose its power. But the threat is there and acts on you through your own fears. In effect, the fulfillment of your dreams acts as a lure and the implicit threat pushes you to take the bait.

In alignment, you are led to feel that your survival, your viability in society and/or your very identity depends on your doing what the other person (or the system or your own patterns) is requiring of you. You are being offered a way of life, a position in the world and/or recognition, and the threat here is barely concealed: if you don't do this, you don't belong in the world.

Aversion: Reduction and Polarization

Create and use confusion by establishing an emotionally charged field

Reduction refers to someone (or a system, including your own reactive patterns) reducing a complex situation to a single emotionally charged issue. The result of reduction is that you are locked into one and only one way of seeing the world. When someone tells you that all the problems in the Middle East are due to ISIS or that money is the only thing that matters, you are being subjected to reduction. Any nuance, any other perspective, is not taken into consideration.

We see this time and again in the political arena in single-issue topics and identity politics. Climate change, for instance, is regularly reduced to a matter of economics. The reduction has prevented governments at every level, municipal to international, from taking effective action.

Reduction is often used to rationalize the inequalities of the status quo. A favorite trope is that people get what they deserve and those who are poor deserve to be poor and those who are wealthy deserve to be wealthy. This reductionist fantasy is used to eliminate public services with the specious argument that they provide help to people who do not deserve help.

Closely associated with reduction is polarization. Polarization eliminates complexity and nuance by presenting issues in black and white terms - this or that, for or against, right or wrong. It is regularly employed by political leaders, for instance, to solidify support and isolate those who disagree with them. "If you are not with us, you are against us." In polarization, you feel that you being forced to choose sides. You are told that any dialogue between different perspectives is suspect, dangerous or simply not permissible.

Where seduction and alignment are based in attraction, reduction and polarization are based in aversion. They are instruments of aggression, and they rely on evoking anger and hatred in you.

Both polarization and reduction play on pre-established prejudices and fears invoked to get you to act not in your interests, but in the interests of the person or system invoking them. Reduction and polarization often rely on reason and supposedly rational arguments, but, as I have written elsewhere, reason can be a weapon used by those who do not want their anger to be evident or identified. By leading you to feel the "rightness" of what they are saying, they can appear utterly reasonable while they get you to destroy your world and the world of those around you.

If you step back and open to what you are experiencing when faced with either reduction or polarization, you notice that you feel stripped, naked and exposed. You feel stripped because considerations that are important to you or to those you care about have been stripped away. You feel naked because you are not able to rely on your usual frames of reference and the ways you usually relate to others or to the world. And you feel exposed because you do not know how to maintain your own integrity in the face of the reductionist or polarizing rhetoric.

Indifference: Marginalization and Framing

Results in key issues being overlooked

In framing, topics and issues are presented in such a way that key questions cannot be asked, or cannot even be raised. George Lakoff, in Don't Think of An Elephant, analyzes the different frames used in the politics of this country. Framing induces ignorance in you, that is, you are led to ignore aspects of the issue that may be vitally important to your own interests but are contrary to the interests of the person or entity that is seeking to make you act in their interests.

For instance, as soon as Corbyn was elected to the leadership of the Labour party in England, the Tories released an ad that presented Corbyn as a threat to national security - an attempt to reframe the popular interest in him by converting concern over wages and inequality into fear of being unsafe. On the other hand, financial and economic issues are typically framed as being too difficult or too complex for most people to understand, even though large numbers of sports fans in this country have proven very capable of analyzing and understanding the complexities of whole sports, from play on the field to the intricacies of coaching, managing and the draft process, etc.

Marginalization goes further. In marginalization, you are made to feel that your own interests (or interests that run counter to the interests of the other) are inconsequential, are not worth thinking about, are not worth any consideration. In 2015, the Black Lives Matter movement was attempting to counteract the legacy of the marginalization of the value of black lives in America society. Environmental concerns are consistently marginalized in favor of profit, and this is typically done by arousing fear about losing your job or your livelihood.

It is small wonder that mindfulness has attracted so much attention, but the mindfulness movement itself has been criticized for marginalizing the inequities and cruelties of the modern work environment and framing problems in the workplace as a problem with the individual, not with the system.

Some Antidotes to Mind-Killing

Seduction And Alignment

One method of counteracting seduction and alignment is to use a set of four questions originally developed by Byron Katie:
  • Is this true?
  • How do I know it is true?
  • How do I feel when I believe this?
  • Who would I be if I let this go?
The key in employing such a method is to be willing to stand in the storm of emotional reactions that these questions elicit. The storm is inevitable because the mind-killing has already provoked emotional reactions, particularly desire, longing and wanting in all their different forms. In effect, you are making your own patterns of attraction and desire the object of your attention.

There is little, if any, need to analyze.

It is sufficient to stand in the experience of the physical, emotional and cognitive sensations that arise when you ask these questions. When you do so, the energy of the emotional reactions is transformed into attention. You are able to experience attraction as an experience, not a compulsion. You step out of the world of projected desire. The mind-killing loses its power. You wake up from the spell that the seduction has cast on you. You break out of the jail that alignment has confined you to. And you taste the fresh air of freedom.

Reduction and Polarization

Direct opposition to reduction and polarization is rarely effective. The person or system has defined the field of engagement and if you engage them directly, you are fighting on their territory and with their weapons. Instead, step right out of the world of anger and hatred that they are projecting and seeking to elicit in you. Compassion is probably the most potent practice, because anger and compassion are mutually incompatible - in the same way that heat and cold are.

In the world that anger projects, you seek to avoid your own pain by making someone else experience it. In the world that compassion projects, you know and understand the struggles that every person, including yourself, experience and the pain generated by those struggles. Compassion dissolves the sense of "I" vs "other" because, with compassion, you see the other is a human being just as you are.

As for the polarizing and reducing tendencies in your own reactive patterns, open to the anger and fear that drive their operation. You may try to use insight (what is angry? what is the anger?). Even though this approach is recommended in many texts, I have rarely found it to be effective because it is easy to employ insight without engaging the reactive emotional material in you.

Instead, I recommend compassion-based methods, such as taking and sending, that involve engaging the pain and struggles in yourself, and, from there, the pain and struggles in others. When you can stand in your own pain, you are no longer driven by fear. When you know your own struggles, you know the struggles of others.

Marginalization and Framing

Two methods that are often effective countermeasures to marginalization and framing are:
  1. Knowing what is vitally important to you
  2. Exploring connections
When it comes to what is important, many people have already been conditioned to think primarily in terms of their own individual welfare and supposed indicators of well-being that are easily measured, (i.e., income. actual quality of life, particularly the quality of relationships, and the time to pursue personal interests outside of work, etc.), have been effectively marginalized.

From time to time, ask yourself, 'what is vitally important to me?' When you do, you may notice a tide of uncertainty or fear. That fear, that tide, is the inertia of conditioning that is resident in you. To question what is vitally important in the face of that conditioning is no trivial matter, but, at least in my own experience, it is the only way to step into our own lives.

When you explore connections, you break down the artificial restrictions that marginalization and framing have imposed on your thinking. You see for yourself, for instance, how you contribute to and influence the world in which you live. You step out of the world projected by your reactive emotions, fear, anger, need or instinct, and come to appreciate the complexity of interactions that make up every aspect of our lives.

You may find the plethora of interconnections overwhelming at first, and not know where to start. Those feelings are, I think, residues of the conditioning that all of us have been exposed to. If we keep exploring and questioning, however, we find more and more freedom and possibilities, internally and externally.
immeasurablematt Buddhist practitioner, husband, ex-academic. Writing about how to use meditation, positive masculinity, and Jordan B. Peterson's work to transform your life.