‘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 thought 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 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 more of a spiritual narcissist too.
Unfortunately I ended up dating someone who used the teachings to psychologically and emotionally abuse me. Due to the belief that abuse is simply a misconception created by the mind, womanisers learn they can take advantage of multiple vulnerable women and gaslight them even more than they normally would and get away with it. The male residents and teachers all had sex with vulnerable volunteers at Nagarjuna KMC. These volunteers are far from family and friends, and looking for answers to life’s big questions. I don’t think teachers should be allowed to have sex with anyone who attends teachings, but especially their own teachings. This is an abuse of power and awe.
The first time I disclosed the psychological abuse to the admin director she told me ‘nothing matters, that’s what Bridget (the National Spiritual Director) says’. After all other forms of victim blaming have failed people resorted to nihilism to invalidate your experience, your needs and at times your very existence. When I raised my concerns to the ‘National Spiritual Director’ I was minimised and dismissed using the teachings. She told me that ‘enduring suffering is your practice’ and stated that if I wanted to teach dharma, I should endure it (I did not want to teach). It took me several months to understand and accept that she attempted to make me feel spiritually inadequate and manipulate me into staying, and to teach. I imagine she did this because I am young and a mental health professional, and they want to attract more young intellectual people. I didn’t know then about the history of alleged sexual abuse by senior teachers and monks in the NKT that had been enabled, whitewashed, and victims gaslighted. (To hear more details about that, you can listen to this).
Two well meaning but indoctrinated friends told me that I had an impure mind and that’s why I was perceiving impure behaviour, and told me to meditate on being a plank of wood in order to stay in the situation and dissociate from my emotions. One friend who did support me by advising me to leave in order to protect myself from further suffering, told me they would only be there for me again when I felt no anger. A few people admitted that they knew I had suffered abuse, and that narcissists do exist, and pose a risk to vulnerable people in the centres, but they didn’t know what to do with this because it contradicts the teachings which they thought they should be following. The admin director said I should come back to volunteer immediately because I was ‘part of the family’. I believe she felt no warmth towards me at all, however she used the metaphor of family because she wanted a volunteer.
At first I still believed that some people just twist the teachings. I hadn’t yet understood that they were gaslighting by nature. Even if others aren’t gaslighting you, you are doing it to yourself in your own head. 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. 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. 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. Actually, it’s just modern slavery and psychological abuse. Those who met or received teachings from Kelsang Gyatso however are more vulnerable to the experience of awe creating blind spots than I was. I always found his photos a bit creepy. I found it very painful to accept all this and still do find it hard to imagine everyone still there, continuing with that passive aggressive path. 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.
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. I had never even wanted a Guru, I just wanted a ‘sangha’. But without the Guru, there is no sangha.
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. When I saw the online character assassination of ex-members I nearly threw up. 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. It had only ever been about expansion and control, never compassion. We had all been duped. I tossed and turned at night, I had urges to bang my head against walls. Nothing was helping. I still wondered if the whole thing had all been in my head. I wanted to purge it and confess my part. I know that speaking out on YouTube was bold and provocative, but I couldn’t hold it in anymore. It worries me that none of my colleagues questioned what had been happening to me despite my deteriorating health. I think people are wary of questioning your involvement in case it comes across as discrimination. I worry that my partial indoctrination may have affected my natural empathy levels and authenticity. I worry that anyone who saw me there might think that I condone their view of mental health. Which is why I felt I had to make my truth very clear.
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.
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 meaning. 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.
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 complex. I know I can’t save everyone, not from their trauma, 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.
Update October 2019:
Following finding the sick defamation website written in my name by senior NKT using fake identities, I had an unsettling summer. 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.
Betraying Narcissus a poem (plus trolling)
Update January 2020:
My health has improved dramatically with each week that passes since the defamation. I now feel supported, understood and valued by people in the ex-cult world. I feel able to communicate my needs and boundaries, and I have made friends who understand and respect them. Several residents of NKT centres have reached out to me to say that they have left for good since viewing the attacks on me. I try not to worry too much about their vulnerability after leaving, and let them find their own freedom.
6 thoughts on “Michelle’s testimony”
Hi there Michelle, thank you for your courage in sharing all of this, your website is very informative and I hope it helps a lot of people. I was surprised to read you were at the Northampton centre in Nov 2016, I was there in August 2016 – albeit only for a meditation weekend. In November I was undertaking the Foundation Practice study locally. I quit after a few weeks when the “teacher” informed us that to continue we would have to pay £40 a month to the centre!!! I thought “well, that’s not very Buddhist” and didn’t go back :D. Over the years I did end up becoming unhealthily obsessed with Buddhism (not as part of any group), and now have parked it for the meantime for my mental health.
One thing I always consider is that the Buddha never taught lay people the deep, dark teachings of Buddhism, such as “no self”, “emptiness” etc, for the very sorts of reasons you touch on elsewhere on your site. He taught lay people essentially to be a good member of the community, look after yourself etc. He only taught the intense parts to monks after several years of mental preparation. That’s why I believe Buddhist teaching can be so detrimental to people’s mental health in the 21st century. We were never meant to know about these quite dark aspects unless we were in a monastery and as prepared as possible. Nowadays you can attend a 10-day meditation and permanently destroy your psyche.
Anyway, I digress. Thank you for this site and best wishes for the future, Michelle.