Thursday, October 28, 2004

Life After the Cult

How to Heal the Trauma?

What is the experience of the student or disciple of the guru if that guru has been abusive or if the guru is a narcissist? This question is often quite confusing for the ex-disciple for they tend all to often to protect the “good” that they experienced while in the guru’s group.

It seems clear, however, that without some degree of trauma and abuse most if not all former disciples would have remained in their former spiritual groups.

A real return to emotional and spiritual health requires that one face into all the implications of the cult experience. Prior to leaving the group, one no doubt was fed propaganda claiming that leavers are losers, that life will cease to have any meaning once you walk out the door, and that guilt for this sin will never leave you. Clearly that is a load of bs – but it all too often works, and it is the first layer that needs to be removed on the road to recovery. This is very difficult for most of us to do. Many will offer sympathy, but few councilors, psychologists, spiritual advisors or even friends can fully understand what is taking place inside the leaver. One must make a personal mission of peeling back the layers of the cultic conditioning and by degrees allowing light back in. This is difficult and can take years to complete, but the result is having your own life back, with the added understanding and clarity of having deeply pondered this experience.

Here is what one expert on healing trauma says about the challenges facing the leaver:

“Many trauma suffers live in a state of resignation regarding their symptoms without ever attempting to find a way back to a more normal healthy life. Denial and amnesia play an important role in reinforcing this resigned state. Though we may be tempted to judge or criticize people who deny that they have been traumatized, claiming that nothing really happened, it is important to remember that this (in itself) is a symptom. Denial and amnesia are not volitional choices that the person makes, they do not indicate weakness of character, personality dysfunction, or deliberate dishonesty. This dysfunctional pathway becomes patterned in our physiology. At the time of a traumatic event, denial helps preserve the ability to function and survive. However when chronic, denial becomes a maladaptive symptom of trauma.
Reversing the effects of either denial or amnesia takes a great deal of courage. The amount of energy that is released when this happens can be tremendous and should not be minimized or underestimated, it is a time of great significance for the traumatized person.”
- Peter Levine, Waking the Tiger, p. 165

Further to understanding the full implications of being someone with a significant experience of trauma in a cult, it is helpful to look at the classic psychological definition of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD:

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

A history of subjection to totalitarian control over a prolonged period (months to years). Examples include hostages, prisoners of war, concentration-camp survivors, and survivors of some religious cults. Examples also include those subjected to totalitarian systems in sexual and domestic life, including survivors of domestic battering, childhood physical or sexual abuse, and organized sexual exploitation. Symptoms include the following:

Alterations in affect regulation, including
-Persistent dysphoria (depression)
-Chronic suicidal preoccupation
-Explosive or extremely inhibited anger (may alternate)
-Compulsive or extremely inhibited sexuality (may alternate)

Alternations in consciousness, including
· Amnesia or hypermnesia for traumatic events
· Transient dissociative episodes
· Depersonalization/derealization
· Reliving experiences, either in the form of intrusive post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms or in the form of ruminative preoccupation

Alternatives in self-perception, including
· Sense of helplessness or paralysis of initiative
· Shame, guilt, and self-blame
· Sense of defilement or stigma
· Sense of complete difference from others (may include sense of specialness, utter aloneness, belief no other person can understand, or nonhuman identity)

Alterations in perception of perpetrator, including
· Preoccupation with relationship with perpetrator (includes preoccupation with revenge)
· Unrealistic attribution of total power to perpetrator (caution: victim’s assessment of power realities may be more realistic than clinician’s)
· Idealization or paradoxical gratitude
· Sense of special or supernatural relationship
· Acceptance of belief system or rationalization of perpetrator

Alterations in relations with others, including
· Isolation and withdrawal
· Disruption in intimate relationships
· Repeated search for rescuer (may alternate with isolation and withdrawal)
· Persistent distrust
· Repeated failures of self-protection

Alterations in systems of meaning
· Loss of sustaining faith
· Sense of hopelessness and despair


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Healing from Spiritual Abuse: One Suggested Framework.

(From 'Relating to a Spiritual Teacher' by Alexander Berzin, Snow Lion Publications, 2000. Berzin traces many complex psychological issues and pitfalls that have come up for Western practitioners of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. If you're in early stage recovery, his book may be confusing and seem invalidating, but after you've reclaimed your boundaries and are curious to analyse the situation, his book is likely to provide food for thought, even if you disagree with some of it)

'In (his book) 'Invisible Loyalties' Boszormenyi-Nagy, the Hungarian founder of contextual therapy, suggested sensitive ways to healh the psychological injuries of victims of physical or sexual abuse. The methods he outlined parallel in many ways the approach taken in sutra level guru meditation. His analysis may augment our understanding of how the meditation may help to heal the wounds of students deeply hurt by abusive spiritual teachers.

'Boszormenyi-Nagy explained that the first step in the healing process is for abuse victims to acknowledge their pain and that they are entitled to feel bad. They have in fact been violated and for them to deny the truth will only add fuel to suppressed anger or feelings of guilt. Similarly, if we have been personally abused by our spiritual mentors or have learned from reliable sources that our teachers have maligned other students, we too need to acknowledge our pain and our "entitlement" to feel bad. We were in fact wronged or let down...

'Contextual therapy calls next for trying to understand the context in which teh abuse arose from both the perpetrators' and the victims' sides. This does not mean one should rationalize the faulty behvioar or mistakes in judgement on the perpetrator's parts, nor that the victims should take the entire blame and feel guilty...

'Victims of abuse also need to acknowledge that they are entitled to a better deal in life. In Buddhist terms entitlement to happiness comes by virtue of having an innate network of positive potentials as part of (one's) Buddha nature. Nevertheless abuse victims need to earn that happiness by acting decently. For example, war refugees are entitled simply as human beings to homes and a livelihood in host countries. Yet they need to earn good treatment by following the law and leading upright lives...

'Many victims of abuse have negative self-images. Either consciously or unconsciously, they blame themselves for what happened and may feel they do not deserve better treatment. Even if they feel entitled to better treatment they may resign themselves to further abuse.

'A similar pattern often emerges with victims who are told and feel that they are special. (eg when an unethical guru tells you that you're enlightened and must now start a revolution amongst the young, or if an abusive teacher singles you out to be his or her favorite and you find yourself following orders to tyrannize over others--my note,not Berzin's) During the abusive relationship, an inflated sense of self worth make them unaware of being victims of abuse. They often deny the abuse or defend their perpetrators, even if confronted with the facts. Then, when their abusers find other "chosen ones" they feel humiliated, experience sudden deflation of their self images and become deeply hurt or completely outraged.

'In all such cases, the victims need to dispel their identification with their negative self images in order to regain emotional long as they identify with being unworthy, they continue to open themselves to possible manipulation and abuse.

'The next step in the healing process in contextual therapy is determining clearheadedly the legacy that the abuse victims may take from their relationship with their perpetrators. Is it just outrage, bitterness, and an inablity to trust anyone in the future, or can teh victims take something positive with them? (At this stage, only after legitimate pain and anger have been thorougly acknowledged--see previous steps--my note, not Berzins) 'The therapy encourages focusing on the positive factors gained from the relationship and enables the victims to be loyal to the positive aspects and to incorporate them into their lives.

'This process also helps the victims to avoid acting with misplaced unconscious loyalty to the abuser's negative aspects. Such loyalties may result in victims being inconsiderate of themselves,and due to feelings of guilt, denying their rights to have healthy relationships--conforming to the subtle message conveyed by the abuse. Consequently, victims of abuse frequently experience mental blocks about emotional and physical intimacy and may not feel entitled to get married or become parents...Dharma students traumatized by abusive teachers often become so disillusioned that they are unable to continue on the spiritual path.'

(From 'Relating to a Spiritual Teacher' by Alexander Berzin, pp 143-146)

Note: In the Dharma and New Age worlds, there appears to be a taboo against legitimate, appropriate anger even when one has been horrendously abused. It is sad to see tormented students trying to bear witness than anxiously declaring 'But I am not angry!'

It doesnt help that abusive teachers and their minions are quick to pounce if someone show signs of anger and use that to invalidate them and shame them.

But this recovery framework makes clear that legitimate anger is an essential ingredient in the early stages of recovery from any kind of abuse.

Its useful to see recovery from abuse as analogous to a multi-stage rocket, the kind used to propel the Apollo moon expedition.

When the rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral, the initial power thrust was supplied by the first stage of the rocket. (eg the vital anger stage of early recovery).

After the fuel burned out from Stage One, that portion would un-couple from the rocket and fall away. The engines from the second stage then fired up.

After the rocket was free from the earth's gravity and the second stage fell away, a smaller set of engines, guided by precision instruments fired up and the expedition continued its trajectory to the moon.

What assists in early recovery can become disabling in later recovery. Compassion toward one's perpetrator, something vitally important in advanced recovery, can hamper early recovery.

Unskillful use of non dual analysis (aka 'Advaita Shuffle') can also be used by the victim by well intentioned by unskillful helpers or by the perpetrator in such a way as to derail recovery not assist it.

Wednesday, 17 November, 2004  

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