Dr Michelle Haslam: ‘Finding my way out of the empty black hole of spiritual narcissism’
Having just returned from the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) conference, the timing feels right to write my final written testimony. Some of you may have already seen bits of my story, on my YouTube channel ‘Thriving after leaving The New Kadampa Tradition’ in Spring 2019. This is a condensed version of the whole thing. I will speak less about my own vulnerabilities, due to limitations I feel are placed on me by my profession.
I moved in to Nagarjuna Kadampa Meditation Centre in Northamptonshire in November 2016. I was in a more vulnerable state than usual, had lived in an intentional community before, and thought it would be a peaceful supportive environment (that’s what their adverts suggest). To those who have been in the NKT for years, the centres are more obviously slave houses. But this is not obvious to the general public, who they draw in to help pay the bills and then slowly dump more and more responsibilities on through flattery and guilt. Sadly I did not do any research about the organisation, and did not know much about the way cults operate. I had a positive view of Buddhism, as most Westerners do, and knew nothing of the institutional spiritual and psychological abuse. It never would have even occurred to me that I was paying rent to a dangerous organisation with a history of financial abuse and exploitation. I thought that community living was helping the environment and that we were also helping ourselves and others through practicing meditation, which I knew had many benefits through the mindfulness movement. I thought those who only read Kelsang Gyatso’s books were extreme, but they didn’t really bother me. I continued to study a broad range of topics including the neuroscience behind both meditation and trauma. I went on retreats elsewhere, with a group of young buddhists from the Triratna movement, whom I was fond of. I felt like an unfaithful spiritual slut who had to keep her cheating a secret. And still, the extreme nature of the NKT didn’t set off as many alarm bells as it should have.
I never believed in enlightenment and yet I still thought the sentiment behind a lot of the teachings was beautiful. On my working visit I remember the admin director gave me a mantra to recite whilst doing a tedious ironing job when I got a bit frustrated. At the time, I thought this was kind, but now I see this as the first act of spiritual abuse. It was the first sign that emotions weren’t allowed here, and that people would repeatedly give me orders on how to think and feel when it was not requested. There were many controlling people just lurking around, waiting for you to struggle so that they could act superior and give you advice on how to overcome any healthy human feelings. There were mild, quiet, introverted people around too of course. Those were the ones too busy invalidating their own feelings in their head and creating some kind of ‘pureland’ to bother with you.
I had never been religious and I didn’t know what was happening, but suddenly I was driving through the misty countryside singing the prayers even though I didn’t know what half of it meant. I knew it was about being kind and grateful, and helping others, and that was beautiful to me. What I didn’t know was that I was hypnotising myself with the words despite my poor understanding. Lack of gratitude or being kind had never been my problem, being a good girl and a good student was my problem, one that would slowly destroy my health during my time that I lived there. Somehow, I did start to develop admiration and respect for the teachers even though I didn’t agree with everything they said. I don’t know when it started happening, but I did start to value their perspectives, apart from the bits on feeding hungry ghosts and their bizarre ‘truths’ on where the mind was located and how it apparently contained sperm. I thought I was becoming wiser by aiming to destroy my ‘self-cherishing mind’, but I was actually just reinforcing my pre-existing tendencies of self-neglect and abandonment. Hear something often enough and you will start believing it. Especially when it’s written on the walls. I am clear now that there is a ‘brainwashing’ element, because I was definitely under the influence, especially after a summer festival focusing intensely on my wish to benefit all living beings. It is clear now that I had developed a serious martyr/messiah complex. I became a shell of a person, with little passion and no idea what she needed or wanted. But because of the teachings I believed what I was doing was somehow skillful and impressive. Despite the fact that I would never advise anyone else to do that or be impressed by this.
It’s funny how you all believe you are supporting each other in developing spiritually. Actually, you are just codependents using and triggering each other, but talking as if your motivation is pure and that it’s more skillful than average. You all think you’re on some kind of path, but you’re actually just in a stage of arrested development, maybe even regressing. You’re not learning how to function in the ordinary world at all, and you are learning to invalidate your own and others emotions, a ‘skill’ which will severely damage your interpersonal functioning. But spiritual bypassing and dissociation feels good in the short term, so you might feel like you are getting somewhere, learning to be pathologically happy or numb all the time. Despite not believing in enlightenment, somehow I did come to believe that I was on some kind of incremental path. I hate to admit it, but I suppose I became a spiritual narcissist too.
I felt like something was wrong most of the time, but my stomach became so confused due to the mixed messages and conflict with my own views, in the end I think I lost touch with my intuition. I saw that most people had trauma and mild learning disabilities, and I knew they were vulnerable. But hearing all the time that suffering brings people to dharma makes it sound as if the dharma will cure them of it. Whilst I thought this was unlikely, I decided that whatever they wanted to do, if they believe it helps them, that’s great. It took me a long time to trust my own perception that it is actually causing them and their bodies more harm. I only really accepted this about six months after moving out. Believing it benefits you is due to the indoctrination and the short term benefits of spiritual bypassing in avoiding emotional pain. I found it very painful to accept this and still do find it hard to imagine everyone still there, continuing with that passive aggressive path.
Unfortunately I ended up dating a spiritual narcissist who used the teachings to emotionally abuse me. He then became a teacher after only a few months despite not being Buddhist and not believing in karma. The centres don’t have any safeguarding policies, probably as this would go against their teachings on emptiness. This means that womanisers learn they can take advantage of multiple vulnerable women and gaslight them even more than they normally would and get away with it. I was a nervous wreck by the end but he had managed to convince me it was all in my mind. The day he sent me the below email, full of triangulation and New Kadampa spiritual abuse, I ‘woke up’. I realised that all of the teachings led people to doubt their own perception, reality, emotions and basic needs.
I didn’t want to be part of his sick ‘family’, I didn’t want to ‘break the rules’ and I knew that this was an attempt to manipulate me into enabling him to take advantage of women for his own benefit. By claiming it was helping his development maybe he thought I might be more likely to enable him taking advantage. I told him to get a therapist instead. I knew I was having a healthy reaction to a toxic triangle within a toxic environment, and that I wasn’t mentally unstable, or at least not for good reason. When I raised my concerns to the management I was told that they would never get involved with relationships, and I was minimised and dismissed using the teachings. I didn’t know then about the history of sexual abuse by senior teachers and monks in the NKT that had been enabled. (To hear more details about that, you can listen to this)
When I made it clear that I was leaving Bridget Heyes tried to flatter me into teaching for the ‘tradition’, and suggested I should endure further suffering because ‘lots of women have to live with their exes due to finances or children’. She had nothing to say about how we might help protect vulnerable women from being sexually exploited and suggested I was being weak by having a problem with it. I am embarrassed that I even stepped in that building without asking to see their safeguarding policy and I would rather die than teach their abuse enabling warped version of the dharma.
The coldness of most of the people I had been living with really struck me when I left and the general public seemed so warm, genuine and kind. It became very clear that I had been spending time with sadists and masochists. Many people spoke to me and treated me brutally under the name of ‘wisdom and compassion’ at Nagarjuna KMC. Maybe they really thought they were helping me grow by causing me more suffering, but I think they are just sadists who found a place where they are accepted with no consequences for their actions. They too had become ‘brainwashed’ into thinking that their cold words and actions were somehow an expression of kindness and their wisdom, instead of a sign of lack of empathy. The young men in particular, believing they were on a superior spiritual path, were more narcissistic, single-minded and controlling than those I have met outside the NKT.
After six months living in an ‘ordinary’ house, I ‘cult-hopped’ to Triratna, and have a lot of lovely warm memories there. They don’t introduce emptiness teachings to beginners and focus much more on cultivating ‘metta’ and spiritual friendship. They also don’t seem to believe that we should be happy all the time, so there is less spiritual bypassing. But in the end, I found that people from Triratna still occasionally spoke as if they were on a superior path to the general public, and I didn’t want to hang around with spiritual narcissists anymore, so I did another runner. When I read the sexual abuse testimonies (the originals, not the whitewashed perspectives on them) of ‘disciples’ of Sangharakshita I felt sick to the bottom of my stomach. How had I gotten drawn in to a world where this was acceptable in the name of ‘teaching’ others about spiritual development? Gurus and spiritual guides are just narcissists who are elevated to a God like position by people who are codependent (and other narcissists). I had never even wanted a Guru, I just wanted a ‘sangha’. But without the Guru, there is no sangha.
In a talk on ‘Why can’t we eliminate cults?’ at the ICSA conference it became clear that we never will, because of our deep seated need for a sense of belonging and a tribe. There is certainly a scary void after ending all my friendships from both the NKT and Triratna. But I am ready to build my own sense of community without a strange dysfunctional, extra wounded, codependent and narcissistic ‘family’ judging me for my every emotion or ‘worldly’ action. I have accepted that I need to re-build a tribe one by one, the hard way.
Now, I only spend time with people who understand emotions and who can handle mine. I honour and respect all of my feelings, including my fierce, righteous anger. This anger finally broke through nine months after moving out, and it was a powerful force not to be reckoned with. I know that speaking out on YouTube was bold and provocative, but I couldn’t hold it in anymore. After reading the testimonies of ex-NKT who had been treated so disturbingly, far worse than myself, I was tortured. The knowledge that most people’s stories are too dark for them to tell disturbed me even more. I dreamt of NKT babies being born and indoctrinated into believing they should only think virtuous thoughts. I dreamt of pervy ‘dharma’ teachers groping vulnerable working visitors and lecturing them on how they should be grateful for suffering. I dreamt of people giving up their identities, honestly believing they will achieve enlightenment, and being exploited into ill health. I felt like the NKT’s darkness was inside of me and that I had enabled and colluded with it, and it was eating me alive from the inside.
I know that my name and reputation may be forever linked to the NKT now I have spoken out. It is likely that some of them will continue to try to destroy my reputation and career in any way they can. Maybe in a few years I might regret speaking up, but right now I don’t. I spoke my truth, I expressed my previously repressed feelings, and it was heard. Now, I feel like a whole person again. One who can let go because I did the necessary processing and sought appropriate support, not because they ordered me to, by passively aggressively suggesting I am spiritually inadequate or by threatening me with rebirth in a hell realm. Seeing their attacks on me in writing confirmed how sick the teachings and organisation are when combined with peoples’ personalities, and disturbed me all over again. The knowledge that people who speak up will continue to be psychologically abused in this way under the name of Buddhism broke my heart again. If I had to describe my whole experience, it would be as a series of heartbreaks, traumas and humiliations. But not the kind that take you back to kadam dharma. The kind that make you face your darkest wounds and defences, and go crawling back to your therapist with your tail between your legs.
Feeling forced to prematurely forgive without acknowledging any of your own pain, can make you even more resistant to forgiving for a while. So instead I focus on forgiving myself, for being naive and idealistic, for not doing any research and downplaying the red flags. My fierce urge to rescue everyone has faded somewhat. A year out, I think I am well on the way to healing the martyr/messiah complex. I know I can’t save everyone, not from their trauma, from ‘samsara’, not from narcissists and sadly not from the NKT. There’s no closure from an experience like this, especially if you can’t talk to anyone you knew. Cult relationships are strange and intense. You just have to leave them all behind and build a new life, and hope that one day you won’t dream about them anymore.
Betraying Narcissus a poem by Dr Michelle Haslam (plus trolling)
Update October 2019:
Following finding the sick defamation website written by senior NKT using fake identities, I had an unsettling summer mostly full of nausea and frequent blackouts. I knew the NKT attacked critics but seeing the extent they went to in order to stalk and gather evidence against me shook me to the core. You don’t know how it feels until it happens to you despite seeing evidence of how they have treated those before you. I can’t believe that those who knew me continue to stay in light of this. It has shown me just how powerful the cultic environment and deception is in keeping people trapped. I don’t feel very safe in a world that enables cultic abuse. My health and energy levels are poor, and I have to accept that it may take me a few years to recover. Narcissistic abuse is body and soul destroying. I’m lucky I got away, and can still salvage my career, and yet I sleep fitfully.