Spiritual Abuse in the Teacher-Student Relationship
Harry Dijkshoorn explores how spiritual abuse between teacher and student can happen and offers some guidance on how to heal from it.
Meeting Yogi Bhajan
It was 1992 when I first met Yogi Bhajan in his ashram in New Mexico. My teacher at the time, Andrew Cohen, had been invited for an afternoon visit. We were aware that the scene around Yogi Bhajan was quite masculine. Andrew decided to take six male students with him.
Everything worked like a military operation. As we entered the heavily-guarded gates of the ashram, strong, fearsome-looking, bearded men with turbans and automatic weapons hanging from their shoulders, welcomed us at the gate. A woman led us to Yogi Bhajan’s private quarters.
We entered a wonderfully decorated salon and there sat Yogi Bhajan in a comfortable, reclining chair. He welcomed us casually and carried on with the business at hand, which mainly consisted of being waited on hand and foot
I have never seen anyone being served in such an extreme way. Almost every other minute, a woman (they were all women), dressed in immaculate, white robes offered him a sweet to eat, or a small glass of something to drink. They’d wipe his forehead, or his beard, while another woman massaged his feet or offered him a small piece of chocolate. This went on and on. I thought at the time that we, the students of Andrew Cohen, were fine devotees of the Guru, but this was on a completely different level.
Falling from grace
The meeting continued, and I noted that Andrew and Yogi Bhajan got along quite well. Little did I know that I was sat with two leaders of flourishing spiritual communities, who would turn out to be vile abusers of their own students.
By all accounts, Yogi Bhajan was by then already deeply entrenched in a systematic indulgence of the dark, unexamined and traumatized corners of his own mind. Andrew was, at the time, starting to head in the same direction.
Andrew Cohen has long since crumbled as a spiritual teacher, forced by his own students to relinquish his exalted position as the leader of a well-known community. The effects of his demise were dramatic. The community rapidly collapsed with him as he fell. Yogi Bhajan managed to stay in control of his empire until the day he died. This, in spite of years of accusations of abuse of power and sexual abuse.
How does spiritual abuse happen?
But how is it possible that someone who inspires and so deeply touches throngs of people – even to the point of dedicating their lives to service – can simultaneously display such a massive failing, ethically and humanly, as if they have no moral footing at all? These questions became my own predicament after being subjected to my teacher’s malicious inclinations.
Needless to say, there is no student without a good number of their own shortcomings. But this particular set of unique circumstances usually involves:
– a teacher or guide – meant to be the embodiment of wisdom on the path to liberation,
– and a student who, after thorough scrutiny, decides to devote his life to this cause.
Obviously, the student is in a very vulnerable position, placing themselves, as it were, in the hands of their teacher.
The pattern of abuse
The pattern is often as follows: first there is the ‘honeymoon period’ between teacher and student. This can last years so that the student has good reason to have enormous faith and trust in their teacher. But slowly and gradually, often almost imperceptibly, the teacher’s behaviour begins to change.
We need to understand here that most teachers set out with a genuine motivation to help others. Under the pressure of responsibility that their position inevitably brings, their own unresolved childhood patterns will arise. They are almost always highly intelligent, so the combination of self-centered behaviour and the qualities of a genuine, caring guide can seem extremely confusing.
There is a deep need for the teacher to remain as the ‘one who knows’, the one who ‘can see the way forward’ for the student. Some teachers have narcissistic tendencies and, when left unchecked, these can take a heavy toll on the student. The teacher will still exude the love/wisdom that attracted the student in the first place. But now this is interspersed with mood swings, displeasure with his students, anger and even fits of rage. Naturally, the devoted student will interpret this as ‘fierce love’. The teacher is the ‘embodiment of love’, after all.
I know first hand the inner devastation, confusion and pain when you deeply trust someone who appears to be a doorway to the divine, and then that trust proves to have been misplaced. The doorway that once beckoned, so full of the brightest, radiant light, starts to darken, the lights dims…
And in response we deny, justify, rationalize, look away. Anything but draw the inevitable, common-sense conclusion which goes against everything we believe. That is, my “perfect” teacher is flawed, very flawed, maybe even an abuser. When these patterns become habitual, accepted and explained away, abuse becomes systemic.
In many ways, patterns between teacher and student resemble those of parent and child. The parent is all-powerful, the child all-dependent. The parent assumes the role of the all-knowing one, the teacher assumes the role of the all-knowing one. Unfortunately, just as most parents are far from all-knowing, likewise are most teachers, gurus, priests, sheiks, shamans, meditation teachers and popes, far from omniscient.
No human being is perfect, all-knowing or infallible. So often, we lose our own inner compass of right and wrong and common sense in the potentially transformative field of trust, faith and surrender to a higher power.
But the answer to the question, ‘how is it possible that a person who embodies such divinity, wisdom and love can, at the same time, exhibit such abysmal behaviour of abuse, often with those who are closest and dearest?” is almost universally the same.
Teachers, gurus, priests, sheiks, popes, lamas may well possess wonderful qualities and are, without doubt, helpful to so many. However, remember, they all are still works-in-progress, with human shortcomings and unexamined personality traits. They are still human beings, often governed by fear, shame and guilt. Motivated into action by unprocessed, unconscious, painful tendencies from their own childhood.
Public shaming and blaming often occur in broad daylight. In this way, all involved become complicit in the abuse. A culture of silence ensues. Only an inner circle of students are ‘privileged’ to receive the ‘grace’ of this ‘tough love’ inflicted by the teacher as a ‘means for their spiritual growth’.
This silent complicity causes shame and guilt, and leaves deep scars in the soul. “How could I have participated in these atrocities?”, we lament in disbelief much later on. We had given our hearts, we wanted so much to believe that we had found the highest good. Our teacher had proven himself to be so full of care, compassion, love and wisdom. And yet…
When people are seen to ‘support’ and become ‘accomplices’ in the abusive behaviour of the teacher and when questioning the behaviour is regarded as a sin – i.e. a culture of silence is established – then the teacher is home-free and can get away with anything.
The burden of responsibility
There are many teachers whose sense of morality and conscience is sufficiently developed to withstand the temptation to act out their darker impulses. Unfortunately, though, there are those who have taken on a role of responsibility far before they are ready to responsibly carry that burden. These people will give in to their own unexamined needs, wants and desperate desires. They continue to perpetuate the cycle of abuse that they themselves have received.
Spiritual abuse is, like every form of abuse, deeply scarring. How deep the longing of the soul is to return home! Spiritual transgression in the delicate relationship of trust between teacher and student, is the abuse of a person’s spiritual heart, the source of the delicate longing for the Divine. And how the soul hurts when trust proves itself to have been misplaced.
The effects of spiritual abuse
I have my own story to tell of the complex dynamics that occur within the relationship of a spiritual student and his guide. I was part of a new religious movement for 15 years and a close attendant to the leader. It took me another 15 years to recover from the abuse I received.
Whether the violation takes place in a Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or unaffiliated setting makes no difference. The dynamics are the same: an abuse of power by an inspiring, charismatic leader, leading to manipulation and control over people’s lives.
When the leader has a narcissistic streak, then abuse is never far away. It is unfortunate that spiritual abuse is an everyday reality for so many people in every religious affiliation. In the last twenty or thirty years, the examples of fallen gurus or priests are too numerous to cite.
Those who have been at the receiving end of spiritual abuse often feel ashamed, manipulated, intimidated and humiliated. The effects of spiritual abuse can be harrowing, as with any relational abuse. They can lead to a lack of self-respect, grief, low self- esteem, anxiety, depression, despair, even suicidal thoughts, as well as cynicism and rage.
But there is something deeper and more critical than even that. Not only does it destroy our trust and faith in humanity, it leaves us with a profoundly damaged relationship with the Divine. We are now without any trust in the very source of life.
The long-term damage of spiritual abuse should not be minimised. Coming to terms with what has happened may take years. It’s a hard road to travel, but once you’re on it there’s no turning back. Please know that all this suffering is never in vain and healing is possible.
Essential steps for healing
- Allow yourself to grieve.
- Fully acknowledge the abuse and the denial that has taken place.
- Share experiences with fellow ‘rebel students’ who have left the fold. Confide in good, wise friends.
- Keep your life as much as possible in order with work, tidiness at home, personal hygiene, exercise.
- From now on, own your right to have very clear boundaries. No-one is allowed to mistreat you. You are free to leave uncomfortable situations.
- Self-care, self-care, self-care – self-love. It is really OK to pamper yourself… Surround yourself with things that uplift you, make you happy. Bath salts, a rose, candles, scents, good friends, nature, mountains, beaches, exercise, chi-gung, yoga, music and good apple pie!
- Be willing to redefine yourself anew, allow yourself the freedom to find out who is the real you now.
- Find a good therapist or counsellor. Be critical in who you choose. Find a form of therapy that includes the body. Often our bodies have suffered quite a lot under the strain. Somatic Experiencing is a useful methodology to release our organism from traumatic residue.
- Speak to God, the Divine, in whichever name or form you relate to it. Complain, scream, shout, curse, give your anger and pain to Him/Her/It – it belongs there in the first place. It will help heal your spiritual heart.
- See yourself gradually finding your way through this labyrinth. Besides all the challenges and pain, this rocky and thorny path will undoubtedly bring many gifts and great blessings for your growth, both personally and spiritually. And then, when trust in life and trust in the Divine are re-establishing themselves in you, you can be sure you are well on your way. You can be very proud of yourself for the journey you are in the process of completing.
You will come out richer and wiser, like an elder – though maybe still young in years – ready to take your place in this great mystery of life, and shine your light while the angels rejoice in you doing so.
The Crown Jewel of True Discrimination – Viveka Chudamani (This article was written in honor of Philip Renard’s publication in Dutch of the Viveka Chudamani, a prominent scripture of the Advaita-Vedanta tradition. The article was published in the fall issue of Sahaja Journal, 2022, of Triveni Ashram and in Dutch in Inzicht Magazine, November 2022.)
The year was 1992. We were riding in a somewhat rickety bus in India on our way to ‘Vulture’s Peak’ in Rajgir, one of the Buddha’s favorite places where he liked to camp with his students to hold longer retreats. Some 250 seekers had traveled to India to participate in a four-week retreat with the now-discredited spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen.
Philip Renard was also part of this company of seekers on this bus, which, like a loose cannon, swinging from left to right across the road, maneuvering between all the cows, goats, people, cars and whatnot. was getting closer to its destination. I had been a committed student of Andrew Cohen for several years, Philip was one of the new people who on this retreat in India wanted to get a clearer picture of who Andrew Cohen really was and what his teaching really had to offer – this latter wish would come true sooner than he might have thought.
I had spoken to Philip a few times and our hearts had already met. I was sitting in the back of the bus and saw that in the front row where Andrew was sitting, a group had formed. After a while I went to see if I was missing something interesting. I encountered a familiar scene – Andrew, supported by some of his closest students, was engaged in an intense Dharma debate with Philip. I listened in for a few moments. I had witnessed conversations like this many times before. Andrew’s trump card was his invitation to every seeker, to surrender completely to the desire to embrace the Absolute as your own Self.
“Do you really want to be free more than anything?” I heard Andrew ask Philip in a challenging tone of voice. “Are you willing to give up anything that stands in the way of this?” Andrew continued. “Do you have the courage to stand alone in the Truth?” I sat back in the back of the bus and wondered what would happen.
Many years later Philip told me what a defining moment this had been for him. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he got off the bus. He had poured out his heart, withholding nothing, borne the depths of his soul, with all longing for Truth and Freedom. Andrew, of course, fully acknowledged the sincerity of Philip’s desire, while repeatedly pointing out that it was only Philip’s ego that prevented him from answering with a resounding yes to Andrew’s invitation to dedicate himself fully to achieving enlightenment in Andrew’s community. This was where True Discrimination came in – despite the strength of Andrew’s arguments, something kept gnawing at Philip inside, saying, “It all sounds great and yet something isn’t right here. “True Discrimination sometimes presents itself in a wordless, undefined feeling. Philip could not deny this feeling – he experienced it as a kind of ‘red light’. And he didn’t accept Andrew’s invitation. Philip already had the courage to stand alone in the Truth.
Years later I found myself in a car with another spiritual teacher, Lee Lozowick, on one of the secondary roads in central France. Lee had just performed with his Blues Band ‘Shri’ at a major Harley Davidson motorcycle festival, an on first sight intimidating occasion. We sat in a VW bus with Lee at the wheel and Lee drove, as always, like a rocket. It was past midnight and all the other band members, all of Lee’s students, were dozing in the back of the bus. I sat next to Lee in the front and it was my job to make sure Lee stayed awake behind the wheel. We didn’t talk much on that ride, but at one point Lee leaned over to me and said in a soft voice, “Harry, everyone is under the spell of Shakti, no one is interested in Shiva.” I nodded, didn’t say anything, but this comment became a beacon for the Crown Jewel of True Discrimination for me.
Look at Shiva in this picture, unaffected, free, peaceful, anchored in a beneficent equanimity. “Never forget Shiva!”, Lee said to me. And then look at Shakti (in this case in the form of Kali); she stands on top of him, intimately connected, in an explosion of activity, in all the brilliance of life.
This reminds me of the words of Jnaneshwar, a great poet and sage of thirteenth century India:
The lover (Shiva) out of boundless love
has become the beloved (Shakti).
Out of love for each other they merge,
and again they separate
for the pleasure of being two.
They sit together on the same ground
wearing the same garments of light.
From time past remembrance
they have lived thus
united in bliss.
Difference itself merged in their sweet union
when, seeing their intimacy,
it could not find no duality to enjoy.
Because of God the Goddess exists
and without her, He is not.
They only exist because of each other.
Two lutes: one note
Two flowers: one fragrance
Two lamps: one light
Two lips: one kiss
Two eyes: one sight
These two: one universe
How sweet is their union!
How can something which is, in Philip’s words, “not-a-thing,” and impossible to be contained in a concept, can yet dawn in us and move us to the core of our being? “Come to your own certitude”, says Philip on the first page of his beautiful translation of the Viveka Chudamani. May this Crown Jewel of True Discrimination be bestowed upon you. This age-old text is about nothing else than arriving at one’s own certitude about, as Philip so beautifully describes it, the distinction between “the formless” and “that which for this moment is taken on a form; or, between “that which has always been the case (and always already been free)” and “that which is temporary, which can repeatedly suggest a lack of freedom.”
Philip is a word artist in the Dutch language of the first order. He succeeds, through the originality of his interpretations in beautiful, rich Dutch, to make the ‘self-luminous reality’, by means of the ‘mirror of the word’, light up in the depths of the heart. It brings about an inner smile of recognition and often a tear of emotion. I enjoy his often surprising choice of words, which time and again opens the door to the “instant insight of the Differenceless”, the greatest gift one can receive in this life.
Article nr. 3
The importance of Dharma
Harry explores the different definitions of dharma and explains how the art of living is about maintaining a balance between them.
With the longing for Truth
We are born into this world.
It is the jewel in the heart
That already shines at birth.
Dharma: our given nature
Everything in life follows its given nature. The bird will be a bird and do what birds do. The snake will be a snake and do what snakes do. The bird is true to its dharma, and so too the snake and all beings. It is only the human being – this beautiful and perplexing creation – endowed with the capacity to be self-aware, that can go against its own given nature, against its own dharma. And go against our nature we do – sometimes even vehemently so.
Dharma: our place in the totality of life
Indigenous people have not lost connection with their place within the totality of life, which is another definition of Dharma. They have an acute sense of the interrelatedness and interdependence of all things. Modern humans though have, as a product of their technologically advanced society, all but lost their intricate connection with the sacred wholeness of life. The results are here for us all to experience. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the stress of our lives brought about by the lie that we have to consume in order to be happy. All have produced a toxic environment from which there is almost no escape. There is no need to elaborate this point, we all know this. The world we are leaving to our children is in need of much mending. And, in a sense, so are we.
“You are the world”, the great J. Krishnamurti declared passionately. The state of our planet is only a reflection of the mental state that humanity as a whole finds itself in, with the ‘developed’ countries leading the way. We have lost touch with nature, we have lost touch with the divine, and we have lost touch with ourselves. We have to regain our connection with nature; our connection with the divine. And we have to regain the connection with ourselves. This is key. And all these three point to one word – Dharma.
Dharma: our innate sense of right and wrong
There is another meaning of the word dharma – maybe best translated as conscience. This is our innate sense of right and wrong. It is innate to all human beings. It is our highest value, or should be, but these days often takes second place to our desires for personal gain. This is apparent on an individual as well as a corporate level. The damage we are willing to inflict on the planet as well as on each other, in order to continue the perpetual cycle of material gain, is a problem the next generations will be forced to deal with.
And yet, also today every child is born with this innate ‘knowing’ of right and wrong, a sense of Dharma that sits quietly in the chest of each human being, like a good, unassuming friend.
The four definitions of dharma in the Indian scriptures
In the Indian scriptural texts dharma is divided into four aspects:
The universal values that are written into the structure of reality. There is a universal expectation to not hurt, deceive or slander each other. I don’t lie to you because I really don’t like it when someone lies to me.
We are all conditioned to act in certain ways in the world. For example, business people might see every situation as an opportunity, empathic people may ask if they can be of help, and criminals will see if they can make some easy money without getting caught. However, some people have a burning desire to seek liberation, free the mind and realise their own nature.
All living creatures follow their nature. As already stated above, only human beings, endowed with introspection and free-will, can and do stray from their given nature. But wanting to be different from how life has formed us is not useful or conducive to success and happiness. The way life has formed us is the set of cards we’ve been given to play in the great tapestry of life. Better to accept and love it, and gently work at those parts that could do with some improvement.
The way life has formed us is the set of cards we’ve been given in the great tapestry of life. Better to accept and love it and gently work at that parts that could do with some improvement.
Vishesha dharma is the appropriate response to a given situation with its particular conditions and circumstances. Here, discrimination is essential, as we need to interpret the circumstances we find ourselves in, keeping in mind the universal values and the propensities of our own nature.
This enables us to respond to a situation appropriately, but this is not always easy. Life can be full of complexity and can ask of us a willingness to adjust and re-adjust ourselves again and again, so we can keep attuning ourselves as best we can to the dharma of each situation.
Dharma – your true nature
Dharma with a capital ‘D’. It is the Self or your real “I” – the silent witness. As spiritual teacher and author, Rupert Spira, says: “The discovery that peace, happiness and love are ever-present and completely available to us at every moment of experience, under all conditions, as our own Self, is the most important discovery anyone can make“.
To paraphrase Vedanta teacher, Christian Leeby, it’s with these four definitions of dharma – balancing your own values with universal values in each unique situation that life presents you with – that is the art of living.
Every eco-system depends on a delicate balance of all of its parts. Observing universal and personal values with a clear sense of conscience is also how we maintain that balance as human beings. We contribute to the whole, rather than extract from it. We play our part that we have been designated to play. And, in doing so, (as the Sufis say) we’ll leave behind us the sweet fragrance of Dharma.