Adapting therapeutic approaches for ex-members of abusive groups that call themselves Buddhist

Introduction

This information is designed for mental health professionals who have received a referral for a person who has left a group that calls itself Buddhist. Initial conclusions drawn from the findings of Anders (2019a, 2019b) are reported, alongside cultic studies literature, and my own opinion and recommendations. My own recommendations are based on my own experience of trauma within and after leaving the NKT, what other former members have reported to me (mostly in private but some in video testimonies), and my clinical judgement based on my training and experience as a clinical psychologist.

For more info on the nature of post Buddhist cult PTSD see this page. Anders (2019b) asserts that former members of ‘Buddhist’ groups report severe and complex anxiety, acute stress reactions, post traumatic stress and dissociative identity ‘disorders’. Factors that play a role in the nature and severity of these ‘disorders’ include the person’s pre-existing difficulties, their particular spiritual practices, abusive experiences, length and ‘depth’ of their involvement, exit mode, and the social and economic resources available to them upon leaving.

Crises

Those who were involved with the group for a long time, left one of their centres as a resident or heavily involved member suddenly due to abuse or crises may be at high risk of suicidality and homelessness, and may be at risk of needing an inpatient admission. Belonging to the group may have provided them with some conditions that enabled initial stabilisation in recovery from pre-existing trauma, but trauma experienced within the group and then leaving the group may trigger attachment trauma severely. Anders (2019b) reports that some of her participants indicated that they needed urgent support. Many survivors of the NKT have reported suicidality shortly before or after leaving for good.

Many would meet criteria for mental health services however they may be difficult to engage in services due to difficulties with trust, shame, and the belief that mental health professionals could be associated with the group. 

Mental health professionals and the general public are not given sufficient education about cult involvement, so ex-members are unlikely to believe they can be helped by services.

Lack of economic and social resources

Anders (2019b) argues that delayed departure from the group combined with lack of social and economic resources following exploitation leads to complex and long lasting difficulties. A crowdfunding page set up on her website for people who have no income or housing after leaving a Buddhist group indicates the extent of the economic abuse and financial difficulties that survivors face after they leave.

Ex-members who were engulfed and isolated in the group report severe social isolation. Those involved in the NKT for a long time who have lived in their centres often lose touch with current affairs and may feel disorientated on their return to the outside world. Conversation and social skills are likely to be stunted due to the shared language used within the NKT that is not easily understood by the general public. This could be similar to the experience of culture shock in one’s own country. The social network that they may wish to develop outside the group is further threatened by slander by group members, in person and online. Online slander serves to destroy the persons social and economic resources in a way that is not bound to the geographical area where they were living (Anders, 2019b).

Survivors may therefore require a longer than average stabilisation phase before they can engage in any talking therapy. Therapy may need to focus on assisting the person to mobilise social and economic resources and should not focus on traumatic material during this time (Jenkinson, 2008).

Anonymous survivor of the NKT (email to myself, printed with permission)

A unique ‘intervention’

‘What I found in treatment is that therapists and substance abuse counsellors have no clue how to help ex cult members. How do you explain to them you’ve lived in a fantasy world of visualisations, denying anything inherently exists and worshipping an emaciated, elderly man with crap English as an incarnate Buddha?’

Anders (2019b) asserts that ex-members of groups that call themselves Buddhist would require the development of a specific psychotherapeutic treatment approach. Gillie Jenkinson is a psychotherapist who completed her PhD in cult recovery and has worked with many ex-members. She states in an interview with New Psychotherapist magazine (Autumn 2018) that the traditional therapy model doesn’t work with cult leavers. She argues that there is a risk that the therapist considers the person as having low self-esteem and directs therapy to focus on their childhood. However their low self-esteem could actually be a pseudo-personality created by the cult and all the ways in which it has made them feel unworthy. Focusing on childhood experiences could exacerbate the persons feeling that ‘inadequacies’ led to their recruitment. Gillie states that framing the person’s experience using psychoeducation about thought reform is crucial.

You explain the theory and ask how it might relate to them and as they respond, you watch the lightbulbs go on. I also present profiles of cult leaders
and their manipulative practices – this understanding helps clients separate their cult pseudo-identity from their authentic one
‘.

Gillie Jenkinson, New Psychotherapist magazine, Issue 69

It would be important to check first whether the survivor is open to reading relevant Cultic Studies literature or information that is critical about the group rather than to ‘prescribe’ it. (Although if you are reading this website, its likely that happened already).

Anders (2019b) states that increasing confidence in one’s own perception and intuition, and trust in others become central issues in ex-members of Buddhist groups. It is important in my opinion and that of Anders (2019b) that the therapist understands:

  • The person has likely lost confidence in their own perception and values
  • They are likely to be dissociated from their body, using cognitive spiritual concepts to protect themselves from their emotions
  • There may be a split between the real self and the idealised self (high-unrelenting standards or perfectionism)
  • There is a high likelihood that the person has been abused but may not yet perceive this as abuse
  • That the person may display what seem like bizarre or blunted reactions to events
  • The person is highly likely to believe that anger must be avoided and is a sign of spiritual failing
  • The person may still feel highly responsible for the group
  • The therapist may need to limit the use of therapeutic techniques that remind the person of spiritual ideas used to deflect from the perpetrator of abuse e.g. gratitude practices
  • That their role should not be ‘deprogramming’ the person from their beliefs

The ex-member may not know what they need or want, and may be attending therapy simply because they know they are not coping and want to feel better. ‘Deprogramming’ should not be the goal of the therapist and deprogramming interventions carried out in the seventies and eighties have been reported to retraumatise people. Cultic beliefs have been shown to fall away gradually over time if the survivor is socialising with people outside the group (although psychoeducation on thought reform can also be of great assistance). It may be tempting for the therapist to directly challenge beliefs in the same way that in my experience it is tempting to directly challenge anorexic beliefs. If the survivor names one of their goals as challenging the groups beliefs however then externalising the belief system as something that has taken over the survivor (in a similar way to how one might externalise an anorexic voice) may be helpful.

It is unlikely that the person understands psychological abuse mechanisms and coercive control. It is crucial that any disclosures of experiences that were traumatising within the group are validated as trauma and met with empathy.

Psychoeducation

For those who spent a long time involved with the group and whom have only recently left, psychoeducation on trauma may be particularly challenging. Those who are still indoctrinated may find neuroscience which mentions the brain difficult to accept. It is important to establish what the ex-member believes about ‘the mind’ at the beginning of therapy, and not to immediately directly challenge this, as this would be likely to cause significant cognitive dissonance and distress. Asking if the ex-member would be willing to explore Western perspectives on mental health, and only doing this with permission, could be more helpful in establishing a sense of safety, trust and rapport.

The ex-member is unlikely to have practiced emotion regulation or to have been spending time with people who understand emotions. Therefore they may have very limited vocabulary for describing their emotional experience. Gillie Jenkinson argues that the person can feel like they are disintegrating when they cannot turn to any of the coping strategies they developed in the group due to triggers, considering they haven’t yet developed new coping strategies. Grounding and self-soothing techniques may be helpful to practice in session if the person is willing and this is collaborative. Numbing themselves may be one of the only tools they have in coping with the side effects of leaving a cult on top of their pre-existing trauma, and substance misuse is a risk.

Asking survivors to notice and name their emotional state regularly during therapy may assist them in reconnecting with their body and their intuition in the present moment (Anders, 2019a). Giving survivors feedback on their embodied experience may be helpful (e.g. I notice your breathing seems restricted at the moment?) if they find it too difficult to do themselves, however caution may be needed so as not to overwhelm the person or direct too much. It may take a significant length of time and practice for them to understand their fight, flight or freeze response. This process should be gradual as the persons spiritual bypassing is protecting them from emotional and maybe even physical pain. They may have acute PTSD symptoms which make connecting with their body overwhelming. They may benefit from grounding techniques that focus on hands and feet at first, if the sensations around their core are overwhelming. It may appear that the ex-member has unusual or blunted reactions to what would usually be painful experiences, or they may already be experiencing intense emotional outbursts.

Psychoeducation on healthy perspectives on anger and it’s role in healing would be particularly helpful however this would likely significantly challenge the persons beliefs. Members are told that their reactions to abuse are the problem and not the abuse itself. Cult-leavers often experience rage when they reach a point where they realize they were exploited. The therapist should be prepared to validate and contain this rage rather than to suggest that the client has an emotion regulation difficulty.

Reminding people of their human rights and boundaries

According to Anders (2019a) ‘since many individuals have internalized concepts aimed at increased devaluation and the development of dependency, framing the dignity of every human being repeatedly, for example by reading the Human Rights Convention, can be a useful tool’. As involvement with a cultic group can interfere with people’s boundaries, in my opinion it might be helpful to use a list that reminds people of their right to boundaries and to say no. The one I used is below (author unknown):

  • I have the right to ask for what I want
  • I have the right to say no to requests or demands I cannot meet
  • I have the right to express all of my feelings, positive or negative
  • I have the right to change my mind
  • I have the right to make mistakes and not have to be perfect
  • I have the right to follow my own values and standards
  • I have the right to say no to anything when I feel I am not ready, it is unsafe, or violates my values
  • I have the right to determine my own priorities
  • I have the right not to be responsible for others behaviours, actions, feelings or problems
  • I have the right to expect honesty from others
  • I have the right to be angry at someone I love
  • I have the right to be uniquely myself
  • I have the right to say ‘I don’t know’
  • I have the right not to give excuses or reasons for my behaviour
  • I have the right to make decisions based on my feelings
  • I have the right to my own needs for personal space and time
  • I have the right to be playful and frivolous
  • I have the right to be healthier than those around me
  • I have the right to be in a non-abusive environment
  • I have the right to make friends and be comfortable around people
  • I have the right to change and grow
  • I have the right to have my needs and wants respected by others
  • I have the right to be treated with dignity and respect
  • I have the right to be happy (I would add the word ‘spontaneously’ here, rather than forced happiness)

They are likely to see their own needs almost like inconvenient meaningless thoughts that interfere with the ‘mission’.

‘the challenge is to take these needs seriously, even if you have just learned to silence them for a long time or you might still consider them to be selfish, which they are not. They are the key to your own strength’.

Anders (2019b)

Most ex-members of cultic groups that I know personally report self-sabotaging behaviours. Developing a martyr complex or feeling like you don’t exist doesn’t help a person with self-care. In my opinion self-care is particularly challenging if you are a whistleblower who is being character assassinated as mentally unstable. It can become very difficult for the ex-member to admit they are struggling and to ask for support when current members are triggering them with character assassination so they can use it to discredit them.

Self-compassion

Usually a person will not have been practicing self compassion, as these groups are often masochistic and sadistic. Reading materials on the topic of self compassion may be highly challenging at first and cause severe cognitive dissonance. However I would argue this should be a central component of therapy.

A caution about diagnoses

Those who experienced mental health crises towards the end of their involvement with the group or who have attempted to whistleblow may have been significantly pathologised and slandered as ‘mentally ill’ by the group. It is therefore worth considering whether the use of a diagnosis is helpful or whether this would make the survivor feel further pathologised. Post-traumatic stress is a healthy reaction to the survivors prolonged exposure to the pathological and extreme nature of the group and not a sign of mental instability as the group would suggest (although of course the person would probably meet criteria). The survivor may have been gaslighted by the suggestion that they are ‘paranoid’, when in fact they actually were being stalked, passive aggressively abused or threatened. Therefore any suggestion that they are unnecessarily paranoid could also be retraumatising. 

A caution about EMDR

Gillie Jenkinson states that therapy should not focus on traumatic material until the person has physically and psychologically separated from the group, has understood thought reform, and has separated their authentic personality from the cult pseudo-personality (New Psychotherapist magazine, Autumn 2018).

My opinion is that completing a measure of dissociation would be crucial. If the therapist has not worked with anyone with severe dissociation in the past, I would not advise practicing EMDR with an ex-cult member. If the person was in the group for many years they are likely to be severely dissociated and suffer with derealisation and depersonalization. Level 3 training would be crucial.

Cult pseudo-personality is thought to be a dissociated personality by some (Langone, 1993; Hassan, 2000). Others believe that it is an introjected personality, overlaying the pre-cult personality (Jenkinson, 2008).

Avoiding formal sitting mindfulness practices

Grounding techniques and soothing activities that induce a state of flow would be safer than any formal mindfulness practices (for example music, dance, creative arts). The person’s difficulties are not going to heal by simply observing the activities of the mind, and there is a risk of retraumatization. Some ex-members report that they struggle with silence and cannot even sit in meditation posture due to flashbacks or a desire to go back to the NKT.

‘Even the mention of ‘Mindfulness’ offered as therapeutic support was an occasion for a stressful reaction of insecurity, mistrust and dread. This was before mindfulness was common on the NHS. My body reacted in terror that I would be put into a similar trap of control and brainwashing that I thought I had escaped in leaving the NKT’

(Carol McQuire, ex-member, stated to myself in private and quoted with permission)

If someone is indoctrinated they may find the idea of not meditating very strange, almost sinful however. Exploring the persons values outside of meditation could be helpful e.g. how can they live their daily life in line with their value of helping others without meditation?

Being careful not to make yourself out to be the expert

As indicated above in the quote by Carol McQuire, the ex-member may be very fearful of manipulation. Therapy is a process of influence and can be retraumatising if it is too directive. Some therapists who work with ex-cult members do not sit face to face with them at times as this is too confronting. They may go for a walk side by side for example.

There is a risk that the person will look for another guru, be vulnerable to another cultic environment and further abusive relationships. They may be looking for another system for achieving happiness/enlightenment and may place the therapist in the role of spiritual guide.

Disorganised attachment

The person is likely to have a disorganised attachment style and the therapist may become a strong attachment figure for them. Setting goals around the person slowly learning to trust themselves and build meaningful relationships outside of therapy are important in my opinion. The person is likely to believe that they should be entirely self-sufficient and overcome suffering entirely with their own mind, and so there may be barriers against emotional intimacy and authenticity within their new social network, in addition to fear of trusting others.

For more information on how to support ex-members you could visit Miriam Anders website, or the International Cultic Studies Association website. You can download one of Gillie Jenkinson’s articles on post cult recovery below:

References

Anders, A. I. M. (2019a). Silencing and Oblivion of Psychological Trauma, Its Unconscious Aspects, and Their Impact on the Inflation of Vajrayāna. An Analysis of Cross-Group Dynamics and Recent Developments in Buddhist Groups Based on Qualitative Data. Religions10(11), 622

Anders, A.I.M. (2019b). Psychological impact of power abuse in buddhist groups and essential aspects in psychotherapeutic interventions for the affected individuals. This article was published in German at SFU research bulletin in June 2019.

Langone, M. D. (Editor). (1993). Recovery from cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse. W. W. Norton and Company: New York

Hassan, S. (2000). Releasing the bonds: Empowering people to think for themselves. Freedom of Mind Press: Somerville, MA.

Jenkinson, G. (2008). An investigation into cult pseudo-personality: What is it and how does it form? Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 7, No. 3, page 199.

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