Complex post-traumatic stress after leaving the NKT

According to Anders (2019) former members of Buddhist groups have begun to share their stories of indoctrination, exploitation and abuse, furthermore ‘This signifies a turning point in the historiography of Tibetan Buddhism‘. 

Myself and many other survivors believe the NKT to be a highly psychologically damaging and exploitative organisation that attracts people through their attachment trauma, depression and dissatisfaction with life. We are in agreement with Anders (2019) when she argues that when Buddhism spread to the West ‘quality of care has vanished at the expense of the quantity of centers considered as status symbols‘.

All of the practices recommended by The New Kadampa Tradition could be potentially severely damaging to both mental and eventually to physical health, as well as to people’s relationships with outsiders. Despite this, involvement with this group can feel good in the short term, due to the sense of belonging, ‘love-bombing’ and flattery, trance states, group narcissism, and the short term benefits of spiritual bypassing in avoiding emotional pain.

Potential psychological damage whilst within the group includes:

  • the increasing inability to trust one’s own perception and intuition
  • dissociation from the body, derealisation and depersonalisation
  • further repression of emotion and trauma through spiritual bypassing, thought- stopping and thought-control
  • anxiety linked to fear of rebirth in a hell realm
  • obsessive compulsive urges linked to ‘purification’ of negative minds
  • further trauma due to experiences of abuse within the group which is enabled by the teachings and lack of safeguarding
  • stress and burnout
  • severe cognitive dissonance due to the gaslighting
  • misplaced loyalty and trauma bonding to the guru and the group
  • hallucinations due to the visualisation practices
  • paranoia due to the magical thinking and religious persecution complex
  • feelings of spiritual inadequacy

In particular, this is likely to be highly damaging for those who came to the group with pre-existing acute trauma or complex attachment related trauma. For those with a mild to moderate learning disability who take the teachings very literally, following these teachings could lead to a severe anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder and trauma bonding. I would argue that longstanding members of the NKT who came to the group with mental health difficulties or learning disabilities could lack capacity to be able to make decisions regarding their own welfare.

The difficulties involved in leaving and recovering from the experience of being involved with this organisation could be extensive. These could include symptoms of:

  • Grief
  • The withdrawal effects of leaving a cultic group
  • Narcissistic abuse syndrome
  • Complex post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Hallucinations and paranoia
  • Severe social isolation

The possible withdrawal effects of leaving a cult

According to the Cult Information Centre, for those who are fortunate enough to leave a cult there often then begins a difficult rehabilitation period which typically takes a year or more. During this time the ex-member experiences a variety of symptoms of withdrawal. These symptoms, labelled by Conway and Siegelman (1982) as ‘Information disease’, include:

  • Emotional outbursts
  • Insomnia
  • Fear of the group
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Menstrual and sexual dysfunction
  • Amnesia
  • Guilt

Conway and Siegelman argue that the number of hours spent practicing cultic rituals predicts symptoms. However, Lewis & Bromley (1987) argue that development of such an ‘information disease’ depends on the exit mode of the individual. Kirkpatrick (1988) reanalysed Conway and Siegelman’s data, and supported their claims.

Depression, guilt, fear, paranoia, slow speech, rigidity of facial expression and body posture, indifference to physical appearance, passivity and memory impairment have also been reported in ex-cult members. Stanley Cath, a psychoanalyst and associate professor of psychiatry at the Tufts University School of Medicine has treated and studied 60 former cult members over the last decade. He states that many mental health professionals are ‘ignorant of this ‘disease,’ and don’t know how to treat it.’ Although these researchers said it is possible for those who have left cults to integrate their experience into their lives in healthy ways, many are unable to.

Narcissistic abuse syndrome

It is my opinion that the NKT as a system has the characteristics of a hero narcissist, thus often resulting in narcissistic abuse syndrome in survivors. The traits of someone with narcissistic personality disorder include:

  • Believing they are superior to everyone else, despite the fact they have no special talent
  • An exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Putting you down or criticizing you to make themselves feel superior
  • Telling you everything is your fault
  • Getting angry if you disagree with them
  • Lacking empathy for others, intolerance of other people’s needs and feelings
  • Being envious of others or believing that other people are jealous of them
  • Taking advantage of others and exploiting people for their own gain
  • Isolating you from others, such as your friends and family

Narcissistic abuse was a term coined in 1999 by Sam Vaknin as the name of his support group for victims of narcissists. Reported symptoms include depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, stress, insomnia, post-traumatic stress symptoms and exhaustion. Currently, there is minimal literature on narcissistic abuse syndrome, and sufferers report a lack of
understanding in mental health professionals. Feelings of betrayal by a religious organisation that claims to be compassionate is particularly confusing and likely to lead to severe cognitive dissonance.

Due to the potential combination of severe narcissistic abuse syndrome and withdrawal effects of leaving a cultic group, I believe those who leave to be at high risk of mental health crises that will be difficult for outsiders to understand. Given that lots of people who become involved with the organisation are likely to have attachment disorders, previous addictions and other complex mental health difficulties, I believe the risk of suicide upon leaving the NKT to be high. Survivors have told me that they have known of people who commit suicide soon after leaving. It is likely that someone who has spent several years living in a centre, and does not move immediately into another one, would be at risk of needing an inpatient admission. For those with pre-existing attachment trauma leaving is likely to trigger abandonment and rejection wounds. Those who have become ordained and/or given up their careers and homes are likely to have limited access to funds and are at risk of homelessness. However no one from the management checks that people are ok or that they have assistance with moving, or accessing appropriate care. Several long term residents told me that due to their practice and the rate at which people come and go ‘I forget about someone very shortly after they leave’. Ex-member Carmelo Russo reports in his video testimony that he was told he should not talk to or about previous members as it might ‘create the causes for him to be disrobed in a future life’.

For those who may have held positions of power within the NKT but who do not have a career or position of power outside of the NKT, leaving is likely to result in grief, loss of dentity and to impact on self-esteem. For those with narcissistic traits, re-adjustment into the regular world which has more consequences for abusive behaviour could be challenging.

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder

Possible symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder are extensive and have been arranged into categories. Judith Herman (1992) arranged 27 symptoms into seven categories: Dysregulation of (a) affect and impulses, (b) attention or consciousness, (c) self- perception, (d) perception of the perpetrator, (e) relations with others; (f) somatization, and (g) systems of meaning.

Post-cult PTSD

Rosen (2014) has highlighted that former cult members have higher rates of PTSD than post-deployment military personnel, with a Spanish sample of former members reporting 27.9% (males) to 43.6% (females). ‘Cult-induced PTSD is a unique form of Complex PTSD. A key contributor to this outcome is the highly structured practice by cult leaders of maintaining cult members in extensive states of hyper- and hypoarousal‘ (Healy, 2017). Aspects that distinguish postcult PTSD intrusion according to Healy (2017) are: the range of triggers, a phobic avoidance of triggers, and nature of nightmares.

Lalich and Tobias (2006) list common postcult sensory triggers as:

  • Sights: special colors, flags, pictures of the leader, facial expressions, hand signals, group symbols, items used in group activities rituals, certain buildings or locations
  • Physical sensations: hunger, fatigue, certain touches
  • Sounds: songs, certain music, slogans, mantras, certain prayers, key words and phrases, a certain rhythm or tone of voice, yelling
  • Smells: incense, perfume, certain food aromas, room odors, body odors
  • Tastes: certain foods or liquids, herbs or spices

Cardena & Spiegel (1993) suggest that people who go into a dissociative state at the time of the trauma are those most likely to develop enduring PTSD. Cult members are likely to dissociate due to extensive periods of hypoarousal (meditation, chanting, hypnotic guided sessions, fatigue). Therefore former members have an increased likelihood of developing long-lasting PTSD (Lalich & Tobias, 2006, p. 108).

The nightmares of former cult members contain themes of “death, dying, violence and/or loss, helplessness” (Whitsett, 2010, p. 3). My own personal nightmares were mainly of spiritual manipulation and vulnerable women being gaslighted by predatory NKT teachers, which was linked to my own experience.

Survivors of the NKT report not feeling safe in their own body following leaving the NKT due to the complex nature of their trauma. They are vulnerable to substance misuse and other methods of numbing emotional pain, especially as they have most likely become deskilled at understanding and coping with their emotions. They are likely to feel unable to turn to meditation or Buddhism related coping strategies due to the triggers associated with the NKT and therefore they are likely to feel very confused regarding how best to cope. Survivors report that their ‘internal compass’ or intuition was disturbed and therefore they did not know how to trust themselves, their perceptions, or who to trust anymore.

Religious trauma syndrome

A very high level of trust is often placed in spiritual leaders. When such trust is violated the wound can be very deep, sometimes so deep that the wounded person cannot trust even a legitimate spiritual authority again. There has been considerable research investigating cult recruitment, “mind control” and post-group difficulties. However, the less-well-defined phenomenon of “spiritual abuse” is still
under-researched. An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) of six people who left five religious groups that were Judeo-Christian concluded that ‘spiritual abuse is a multi-faceted and multi-layered experience that is both process and event, affecting the bio/psycho/social and spiritual domains of an individual’ (Ward, 2011). Anger is also deeply felt in those who have suffered any kind of abuse, but particularly spiritual abuse. This anger may be further repressed if the person is still holding the belief that anger is a delusion that they must purify.

Personality changes and loss of identity

Those who have spent several years within the NKT are likely to have lost their previous hobbies and interests, sense of individuality, and to some extent their personality. Those who were ordained even gave up their previous name and sense of identity as someone outside the NKT. They have physically changed their appearance e.g. shaving their hair and
wearing only robes. This could affect their body image and how they are received by others if they return to lay life.

Former cult members frequently float between their precult, in-cult, and postcult identities/ personalities (Jenkinson, 2008; Goldberg, 2006; Singer, 2003; Lifton, 2000; Herman, 1997; Curtis & Curtis, 1993; West, 1992; Winnicott, 1965).

Recovering from this is likely to take considerable time and be highly challenging. Rediscovering their likes and dislikes is likely to be challenging and a slow process due to the teachings focusing on ‘self-cherishing’. 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. 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. This could be similar to the experience of culture shock in one’s own country.

Whistleblowing trauma

For those who try to speak up, risk of further abuse and resulting trauma is high. On a personal note, I experienced the following after being stalked at my workplace, the defamation email sent to my supervisor by senior NKT, actually being released from my job contract for complex reasons, and then finding the defamation website about me:

  • Paranoia (although it’s not really paranoia when they actually are trying to destroy your career)
  • Rage
  • Intense feeling of betrayal
  • Emotional outbursts followed by exhaustion
  • Restricted breathing
  • Slow speech
  • Physical immobilisation
  • Insomnia
  • Poor concentration
  • Anxiety (mostly linked to fears about my future employability)
  • Fear of harm coming to group members who remain
  • A strong feeling of responsibility to warn people
  • Shame
  • Suicidal ideation (I wasn’t that depressed, because I had made plans to end my life, so I didn’t have feelings of hopelessness. I believed I could kill myself if they escalated their attacks or were somehow successful at getting me struck off the health professionals register)
  • Alcohol misuse (I was travelling/on an extended holiday so this was socially acceptable)

Intelligence, qualifications, and even being a mental health professional do not protect people from developing these struggles.

Research is required to better understand the psychological damage and needs of survivors of this particular group, however the participation rate in any proposed study is likely to be low due to complex post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and fear of consequences. Some people walk away from cults somehow unharmed, and may not experience the above, especially if they did not live in an NKT centre or were not heavily involved.

Recovery

Recovery is likely to take many years for those who have been deeply involved in the group. Re-adjustment and rehabilitation is likely to be very challenging, and survivors may need
intensive psychological support. This is likely to present survivors with a unique challenge: how does a person seek social support if they have cut ties with people, struggle with trust following spiritual abuse, and those they encounter have no understanding of what they might be struggling with?

To view a video chat between myself and Christian Szurko, who has worked with several ex-NKT click here. We discuss spiritual PTSD and recovery.

More information regarding recovery from involvement with cultic groups, that may particularly apply to former members of the NKT, is currently being gathered.

References

Anders, A. (2019). 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

Cardena, E., & Spiegel, D. (1993). Dissociative reactions to the Bay Area earthquake. American Journal of Psychiatry, 150, 474–478.

Conway. F., & Siegelman, J. (1982). “Information Disease: Have Cults Created a New Mental Illness?”Science Digest, 90, 86–92.

Curtis, J. M., & Curtis, M. J. (1993). Factors related to susceptibility and recruitment by cults, Psychological Reports, 73, 451–460.

Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and Recovery. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Healy, T. (2017).Unique characteristics of post cult post traumatic stress disorder and suggested therapeutic approaches. International Journal of Cultic Studies, 8, 60-70.

Jenkinson, G. (2008). An investigation into cult pseudo-personality: What is it and how does it form? Cultic Studies Review, 7(3), 199–223.

Kirkpatrick, L. R. (1988). The Conway-Siegelman Data on Religious Cults: Kilbourne’s Analysis Reassessed (Again). Journal for the Scientific Study of ReligionVol. 27, 1, 117-121.

Lalich, J., & Tobias, M. (2006). Take back your life: Recovering from cults and abusive relationships. Berkeley, CA: Bay Tree Publishing.

Lewis, J. R., & Bromley, D. G. (1987). The Conway and Siegelman Claims against Religious Cults: An Assessment of Their Data. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 22, 4, 380-385

Rosen, S. (2014). Cults: A natural disaster—Looking at cult involvement through a trauma lens. International Journal of Cultic Studies, 5, 12–29.

Singer, M. T. (2003). Cults in our midst: The continuing fight against the hidden menace. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ward, D. J. (2011). The lived experience of spiritual abuse. Mental Health, Religion &
Culture, 14, 9, 899-915.

Whitsett, D. (2010). Overview of mental health treatment: Consequences of cult involvement: Assessment and treatment. Paper presented at Cult Information and Family Support Conference, Queensland, Australia, March 12–13.

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