According to Daniel Shaw there are 6 methods cult leaders use to maintain their illusion of superiority and control:
Purification of followers ego or mind
Only perfection is good enough
Inner deviance must be eradicated
Incessant urgency – for your time, dedication, money
Violation of boundaries becomes the norm in order to please the leader
Defend the leader no matter what
Followers are encouraged to keep their guru in their heart all the time, and to follow only their spiritual guide’s wisdom. Those who attend foundation programme classes are required to memorise Kelsang Gyatso’s texts and to take exams where they simply repeat the content word for word. It is widely known that NKT members often start sentences with the phrase ‘Gesh-la says…..’ In this way they often come across like clones, repeating stock phrases, a phenomena that has led some ex-members of the NKT to refer to current members as ‘KelsangBots’. In the Greek story of Narcissus and Echo, Echo is so entranced with Narcissus that she repeats the last few words of his every sentence. It could be argued that in the same way, codependent NKT members repeat the sentences of Kelsang Gyatso in order to rely solely on his teachings as their guide for how to live their lives. They are encouraged to visualise him, and deities on which they rely, as part of their mind and at their heart.
According to Lifton (2014) mystical manipulation can be a powerful tool in thought reform. It relies on the feeling of awe –an overwhelming feeling of powerful admiration created by an extraordinary event or person. Awe can be produced many ways: through amazement at beauty, a deep connection with the vastness of the universe, or even the high experienced through release of endorphins or taking drugs. Any time we have a ‘peak experience’ which is unique, we feel awe. ‘Mystical manipulation is the creation of awe for the purpose of undue influence, and happens when someone else has manufactured, manipulated, or otherwise rigged the circumstances to force the experience of awe, in order to connect the ‘high’ feeling to something they – and only they – can provide’ (Open Minds Foundation). Despite the fact that Kelsang Gyatso has not been seen in public for several years, and is thought by many to have died or possibly to be struggling with dementia, senior NKT members do not allow other members to know what has happened to him. The mystery surrounding his whereabouts appeared to have elevated him to an even more magical and omniscient position in followers minds. Some, although not all NKT members come to believe that their guru is the living Buddha and therefore is an enlightened being. This would explain why, were he to have developed a degenerative disease in his old age, he could not be seen in public, as enlightened beings are not supposed to develop degenerative diseases.
Ex-members report that they heard many instances of magical thinking for example the idea that Buddhas had the power to intervene directly in people’s lives, could read their minds, and could predict the future. According to Stephen Batchelor, author of ‘Buddhism without Beliefs’, many Tibetan lamas also see these visualized figures not just as mere symbols or archetypes. Despite being ‘empty of inherent existence’, they are regarded as possessing both an agency that was independent of the practitioner and the power to intervene in human affairs by granting blessings and answering prayers. In other words, they functioned as gods.
I wrote about the concepts of awe and magical thinking in my original analysis of the NKT. And then I met Dr Yuval Laor, who studies and writes about religious fervor, and he blew my mind with his evolutionary psychology perspective. You can watch Yuval share his knowledge with me below. We ended up having a very in depth chat. He keeps it general and I make it specific to the NKT. I will type up a summary of this chat some time, but for now, it’s best just to watch.
Yuval is willing to answer questions so please feel free to post any comments or questions below, or on YouTube, and I will pass them on to him. The book chapter mentioned is below.
Darkness swirling in my stomach How to exorcise the NKT From inside my veins? I won’t practice patient acceptance Of an abusers paradise I know others on the inside share this pain
It’s not paranoia When they discuss their next move against you Stepping off the throne In the meditation break
You won’t silence me With the usual tactics I learnt to fight back In the meditation break You won’t annihilate me Make me doubt my sanity I learnt to trust my intuition In the meditation break
We’re all mentally unstable Full of generations of trauma Broken dreams, neglect and heartbreak But Narcissus Pretends he’s perfect But he’s an empty shell, a reptile, a snake Jeckyll and Hyde He learnt to hide his true self In the meditation break
He thinks you can’t handle the truth You’re too weak to meditate on death Even though it could come today But Narcissus Isn’t imagining death He can’t even focus on his breath He’s probably ashamed he’s secretly gay
Fantasies of control, power, sex and money Where can he get his next hit? The next source of supply He’s an addict But he’ll calmly get others to believe You’re the one who is sick
They’ll make you ‘insane’ Confusion going round and round in your brain You were just unstable all along They’ll manage to claim She lost her dad That’s the only reason she’s ‘mad’ They’ll check online obituaries Read your PhD thesis In the meditation break My ‘paranoia’ It just got really bad
He can’t handle the truth His imperfections, his shame He thinks he’s on the path But still he craves fame
I won’t enable you I won’t collude with your games Defame and destroy Should be your middle names
You were right about one thing I only put up with your shit Because of my dad But not because of his death Because he was ‘mad’
Narcissus plays innocent child But it’s all a façade He knows what he does He knows he’s not mild
I won’t be your echo I won’t be silent while you leech I won’t repeat your words I won’t listen to you preach
I’ll watch your actions and ignore your words Empty word salad But I see your smirk I won’t rejoice in your satisfaction Your expansion Spreading like a virus Make them work, work, work
Time is ticking Your mask is slipping away You’re getting old, Narcissus Your harem won’t stay
I wish I had known About ‘Fair Game’ You’re not fooling anyone Even the ones with your name We know you don’t care We know you’re not in pain I will betray you Over and over again Dr Mere Name
A while back, before my analysis of the NKT went viral, I recorded this video on coping with attacks from the flying monkeys and enablers that will character assassinate you if you speak up:
At that point I had no idea of the extent that senior NKT would go to with me. Following emailing my workplace under a fake identity, claiming I am too mentally unstable for my job, they wrote an ENTIRE WEBSITE solely dedicated to character assassination: http://www.dr-michelle-haslam.com
‘Dr Robert Harrison’ who claims he is an experimental psychologist, claims that I was fired for gross misconduct. This is a lie. He uses DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender) to suggest he was caused significant distress by me. See the video below for further explanation.
He also claims he does not have the time or inclination to examine my report in full (he only cares about my mental health, right?) yet he has checked out the report in great detail. In order to discredit it. Why would anyone do that if they were not a senior NKT member? He states he knew nothing about it, but I referred to the fact that I was writing it in my videos, which he stated he watched. So there is no way he could not know I was writing a psychological report on the NKT.
He also managed to find out the date of my father’s death and his age. Creepy, right? The team of stalkers behind him, who have been working behind the scenes as soon as they identified me as a threat, have done well. They couldnt work out my age though, because I was 17 when my father died, not 14. He claims all my trauma must be caused by my father’s death and a relationship breakdown to suggest that the trauma caused by my involvement with the NKT must be minimal. (Seemy testimony for more details on what can happen if you make the mistake of dating an NKT narcissist. It certainly wasn’t pleasant, but the abuse enabling teachings and lack of safeguarding played a large part. The relationship ending was a huge relief and I still thank a non religious sense of God every few days that I am free of both him and the NKT).
In regards to the claims that I am mentally unstable, this is clearly a method for discrediting my report (see the section on ‘Ad Hominem’ attacks). If he had genuine empathy, he would not disclose personal information about my mental health online in order to try to undermine my perception of reality (gaslighting) or to humiliate me, if I was already suffering. Trauma of any kind does not negate my view. Claiming people who write testimonies are too traumatised to be trusted is a cult classic. He claims that I was not having therapy or taking responsibility for myself. This is a lie (how would he know about my therapy anyway?)
My report is not a research paper and I make that very clear throughout. It is testimonies with my psychological opinion alongside it plus some references. ‘Dr Robert Harrison’ claims that I should not be calling it a report. He won’t actually engage with me using his real name or as an obvious senior member of the NKT. But given they are obviously unhappy with my use of the word ‘report’ I don’t mind changing the title.
In regards to his claims of plaigairism. The first version was written quickly as I felt unsafe, like they could attack at any moment and I needed to get it finished. I was warned that they would attack immediately. As a result I think I didn’t adequately check I had reworded all the chunks of text I had in my notes. This has now been rectified.
Oh NKT you just continue to make this worse. Not only is this sociopathic, it’s actually stupid. It would have been a lot more intelligent to just issue a fake apology to anyone who ‘feels’ they have been harmed and write a fake safeguarding policy. Or at least to use your real name. But they can’t, because they know that then I could sue them for defamation.
For a further analysis please visit nktworld. I agree with the analysis given on nktworld, and would add that a real Dr of Psychology with concern for my mental state would have no interest in my document on the NKT whatsoever, and would not record everything I say in order to exaggerate and twist it. For a thoughtful article on the abuse I have received by ex-NKT Medium writer Geoffrey Bonn on ‘Leaving the sangha’ please see here.
Update 03.08.19. Today I feel very sad about how the NKT members are being deceived by this narrative created by senior NKT via the fake persona ‘Dr Robert Harrison’. In the first few days of finding it I saw it mainly as an attack on my reputation. But now, I am more aware that really their main priority is to keep people on the inside from the truth. And that is really heartbreaking. They are being deceived on so many levels. The NKT claim they don’t keep people captive, but what is this if not captivity amongst a bunch of fake personas and lies?
A direct message to senior NKT: noone on the outside is fooled. Survivors, every safeguarding lead in the NHS, the police, Cultic Studies experts, and my clinical psychology colleagues have seen through your tactics in an instant (they are, after all, REAL psychologists). There is nothing you can do to dismiss survivors. There is nothing you can do to ruin my career. You have revealed yourselves for everyone to see, and in the future even highly indoctrinated members will work it all out when they escape your deception and seek support.
In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator´s first line in defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens. To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it upon herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail (Herman, 2015).
Herman, J. L. (2015). Trauma and Recovery. The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: Basic Books, Member of Perseus Books Group.
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.
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.
Some of you might have seen my videos on the channel ‘Thriving after leaving the New Kadampa Tradition’. (So many in fact, that at the International Cultic Studies Association conference people are greeting me with the phrase ‘Hi Survivors and anyone else who might be watching this’). Some of you also might have seen that the videos are no longer available to view.
It has been an intense, emotional, profound, authentic and deeply healing few months. As well as the most frightening and abusive of my life.
The guilt that I felt, not speaking up about my view, came from a sense of responsibility as a clinical psychologist to share my concerns about exploitation and psychological abuse. In the end, I couldn’t cope with my own silence any longer.
Sadly, the British Psychological Society social media guidelines state that a Psychologist should not use social media for whistleblowing. So, I felt I had to take them down. I then found that I felt significantly less exposed and safer without them available for all to see. Feeling safe is one of the most important conditions for recovery from trauma. The whistleblowing process alone itself is a trauma, and so I must make self-care my priority now. The report says everything I want to say for now, albeit in a less engaging medium.
I don’t regret what I did. I know I triggered a lot of people to feel painful emotions in speaking my truth. I agree with a good friend of mine when she said ‘the world needs more authenticity that includes pain’. Having the survivors of the NKT and similar groups validate my experience, my emotions, and share their own experiences, was incredibly powerful. Thank you all so much. It also allowed me to feel confident enough in my perception and intuition to write the psychological report. I never could have done that without everyone’s support. Thank you also to the academics, who I am now meeting at the ICSA conference. It has been so grounding, warm and validating (my derealisation has now completely gone).
Myself and other professional members of ICSA are discussing potential collaborations using video, to focus more generally on the concepts covered in my report in future. So after my (long) holiday, these should be uploaded on the NKT survivors channel. So see you in the winter months (well I might not see you, but you might see me).