Psychological neglect, lack of guidance and mentorship
Anyone can attend a teaching on ‘emptiness’ and these usually start by exploring the emptiness of the body. ‘Empowerment’ days can be attended by anyone and include visualisation of dissolving ones usual existence into ‘emptiness’ and then visualising oneself
as a Buddha. There is no discussion about potential adverse effects such as dissociation or psychosis. No-one checks the students prior experience with mindfulness, meditation, visualisation. No-one checks their understanding of this practice or their current mental state. Other Buddhist traditions are known to establish a personal relationship with the student and to ensure they are of sound mental health and have established a mindfulness practice and compassion-based meditation practice for several years before introducing emptiness teachings or self-generation as a deity.
In my opinion this is particularly dangerous for working visitors who do not have access to mental health care in the UK, often have English as a second language, are far away from family and friends, and have limited transport. Working visitors who have only just arrived can be encouraged to go to teachings which in my opinion could be potentially psychologically damaging and frightening for them. When I spoke up about this to the management I was told that ‘it’s just their karma’. I therefore believe that the NKT refuse to take responsibility for considering which teachings are appropriate for people considering their lack of any previous experience with Buddhism, meditation, their mental state, culture or language fluency.
A tendency to encourage psychological disturbance in the name of wisdom
Not only are people not warned about the potential side effects of meditation by the NKT, but at times myself and others have witnessed them being actively encouraged to feel anxiety for example when meditating on ‘the emptiness of the body’. The admin director of the centre told me that she told her sons teenage friend that their body doesn’t exist, and that it gave them anxiety but she stated ‘you have to start them on the path early’. I believe this is a sign that some longstanding members of the NKT believe it is acceptable to cause people psychological disturbance in the name of sharing the teachings on emptiness. However, through their advertising they simply state that ‘we will experience a calm spacious feeling in the mind, and many of our usual problems will disappear’.
Students are also encouraged to practice gratitude for their suffering, as it is teaching them and helping them to develop patience for their abuser. They are therefore encouraged to view abusers as teachers and to keep a ‘happy’ mind throughout abuse. For those with a
pre-existing tendency towards self-harm, self-abandoning and neglect, this could become masochistic. This allows those with sadistic tendencies to abuse those with masochistic tendencies under the impression that everyone is practicing wisdom and compassion.
‘We completely understand the mind…..but not mental health’
The NKT have no understanding of mental health despite the fact that they claim they understand the mind and offer classes as solutions to anxiety, depression and stress.
Teachers and management do not have any relevant mental health training and do not know how to spot warning signs of people’s trauma or anxiety. Any observation of anxiety or trauma is likely to be reframed using the teachings as impure karma or an impure mind.
The teachings are kept very ‘pure’ in their original form, meaning that any influence from other people is considered impure and ‘degenerate’. Neil Elliot’s teacher training notes state ‘Our task is only to preserve the blessings of Gesh-la in this world, and to spread his pure doctrine to every country’. Unfortunately, this polarization may in part be fed by the reluctance of many clergy and mental health professionals to work collaboratively (McMinn et al., 1998). This means that they never will consult outsiders, meaning that their classes never will, in my opinion, be appropriate for people suffering with mental health difficulties, even though this is the main population they target through their current advertising methods.
In addition, some survivors, including myself, report that they were gaslighted until they experienced suicidality. (See my testimony for evidence). Survivors report that they were told that their suffering was simply due to a lack of mental clarity, incorrect perception, or ‘self-cherishing’. Survivors report that when their mental health deteriorated they were treated with indifference, coldness, and at times, spoken to as if they were inferior due to their difficulties. I believe this is reflected here, in an ex-senior teachers’ reflections on a friends suicide:
Whilst it is common for people to view those who have committed suicide as acting selfishly
on some level (not a view I agree with personally, but a common one), most would likely speak with more empathy for the person’s emotional pain. The NKT do not have any
language with which to speak about emotions, trauma or the fight and flight response as meaningful or as requiring any kind of attention. This means that they perceive a person’s suicide as simply a result of an error in their perception which they could have prevented by focusing their mind on something more ‘virtuous’ instead. Mental health is much more complex than this and shame is an incredibly painful embodied experience.