Leaving and stabilisation

Due to lack of social and economic resources, research suggests that former live-in members of ‘Buddhist’ cultic groups would likely need significant support to establish economic security and a social network. They are at risk of a mental health crisis, and some of Anders’ (2019b) participants reported that they needed immediate help upon leaving. Those who have become estranged from their families due to their involvement, or were vulnerable to recruitment due to attachment trauma are particularly at risk of homelessness and severe social isolation. A referral to social services may be needed over and above a referral for support with mental health.

Change your situation not your mind

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can be a good reminder of our basic needs for safety, security and social support. Focusing on self-actualising spiritual techniques or even therapy is futile if you don’t have your basic needs met.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

NKT members are used to working on what they have been told is self-actualisation when their basic needs are not acknowledged and are silenced completely. Instead of being encouraged to meet your basic needs you have been encouraged to see them as unnecessary, inconvenient side effects of your ‘self-cherishing mind’. Recovery from anxiety, acute stress, post-traumatic stress, and dissociative identity ‘disorders’ requires long periods of feelings of safety and security however. You cannot meditate (if you wish to), concentrate or look after others if your nervous system is in an activated state. You cannot override your nervous system using your mind alone, and trying to override/overcome this anxiety could lead to feelings of worthlessness and further physical burnout. Many ex-members of the NKT report severe physical burnout. In addition, leaving a cultic group can lead to withdrawal effects that affect your mental and physical health (see page on Understanding post Buddhist cult PTSD for more details).

For the first year after I left, I had to keep reminding myself that it is ok to change my situation if it made me feel bad. This is not a sign of weakness or failure. You do not have to tolerate terrible conditions or abusive treatment. You don’t deserve any more suffering on top of what is already inevitable in life. Our environment affects the way we feel in many complex ways. Make it as comfortable and peaceful as you possibly can afford. A calming and comfortable place to sleep is of utmost importance as many ex members have been deprived of sleep and rest.

You may not know what you feel or why for a while. You may be in shock or disorientated. Your feelings may be deeply affected by trauma and you may not know when you are getting accurate feedback or when you are triggered. It may take time before you understand the feedback your body is giving you about your surroundings and the people around you, especially if you were practicing ‘equanimity’. Obviously we can’t run away every time we are triggered however my advice would be to listen to the feedback your body is giving you about your safety and to adjust your conditions accordingly as much as possible. Try to treat yourself as delicately and warmly as possible, like you would a child, or a close friend. (There may be many psychological barriers to practicing this however due to the long-lasting effects of thought reform in addition to pre-existing difficulties).

Soothing activities and states of flow

Without using lots of references to complicate things (but trust that I have done my research), a list of further activities that can be helpful in healing from trauma and stress are:

  • Soothing music, food, colours, fabrics, smells
  • Deep breathing exercises (maybe not breathing meditation if this triggers you)
  • Light exercise
  • Activities which allow you to enter a state of flow e.g. creative arts, sports
  • Gentle touch, massage, hugs (if this feels safe)
  • Nature, pets, indoor plants
  • Play (yes, really!)
  • Social support and emotional validation from others you feel safe around
  • Periods of solitude and quiet, unless this triggers you at the moment

Finding activities that induce flow states without meditation can help to calm your nervous system. Some people report that they experience mania when they start to engage in some activities again, seeking out intense experiences or engaging in them for hours at a time. Cult involvement encourages mania due to the practices which lead to extended periods of hypo and hyperarousal. There can also be a feeling similar to leaving a controlling parental home, leading people to rebel. There may not be much you can do about this, but being aware of it and trying to plan periods of rest and relaxation would be sensible. Other survivors report such severe burnout and/or depression that they did not have the energy or motivation to engage in the above without considerable support and encouragement from others. A relevant video from Andrea Ballance is here: Keep moving and walking.

Socialising, play and talking rubbish

Social support is one of the strongest predictors of recovery from trauma of any kind, but especially for ex-members who are likely to have left a ‘home’ and an entire group of people at once. Even if that group was toxic, this is still something people experience intense grief for. You may still be in a trauma bond with certain members or the guru. Being around non-judgemental people is particularly important. If you can, reconnect with any family or friends who do not judge you or tell you what you should have done.

Many survivors report that friendly interactions with new people were important for their healing and ‘de-cultification’ after leaving for good. Due to indoctrination and the ‘groupspeak’ however you may feel like a teenager or even a small child again during social interactions, unsure how to have ‘normal’ conversations or go about making new friends. This can result in significant social anxiety and a feeling of alienation when around others. You could also be experiencing dissociation and depersonalization.

‘I didn’t know how to talk about everyday things anymore. I hadn’t been doing anything ‘normal’ for years so I had nothing ‘normal’ to talk about. I still found myself judging people for being mundane and having emotions even though I didn’t want to anymore. I’m not autistic but this is how I imagine it would feel. I felt like a traumatised alien without a single friend in the world.’

Anonymous survivor

Cult involvement is known to reduce people’s ability to be spontaneous, to engage in play, and to affect their sense of humour. It may be difficult to find the motivation to plan playful activities at first, especially if you develop depression. You may still believe that ‘worldly’ happiness is meaningless or that fun is not important. This is even more likely if your caregivers struggled with mental health problems, as this makes it less likely they will have modelled relaxation and play. Adult children of parents with mental health difficulties often take themselves and their work very seriously. This is also because they develop a feeling of responsibility for the parent at a young age. I would encourage people to make plans anyway, in the same way that would be encouraged when in recovery from depression. It will actually feel fun and meaningful one day and you will start looking forward to things again. Funds may be a limiting factor however.

‘I felt that most things had no meaning and were therefore pointless to talk about. This shifted after a few months, and I began to enjoy talking about all sorts of things again. I found joy in the mundane, and the ridiculous. I didn’t miss the ‘spiritual’ conversations at all once all the NKT beliefs left my thinking. There was a huge sense of freedom in knowing I was safe from the teachings’. 

Anonymous survivor

Going ‘no-contact’ with current members

Immediate no-contact with anyone who has psychologically and spiritually abused you is advised. (See this page if you are unsure if you have been abused). Unfortunately, current members are unlikely to be able to provide you with emotional support following institutional abuse, as they are likely to rely on the teachings to reframe abuse and trauma as a result of karma or an impure mind. This could be retraumatising. Many survivors of different types of abuse report that the way in which their community responded to their disclosure of abuse was more traumatising than the abuse itself. In addition, staying in touch could delay your psychological separation from the group, hindering your recovery.

Connecting with those with similar experiences

According to Remski (2019) when we focus on and create spaces for the voices of victims to be heard, three things can happen: 1.) space is carved for ‘the wound of collective silence to begin to be healed’; 2.) the voices that have dismissed and invalidated victims (that are often misogynistic and victim blaming) retreat; 3.) victims validate each other in survivorship, and entire structures of denial begin to crumble.

Since the #metoo movement hit Buddhism, there are more and more testimonies of abuse being shared online. Reading and listening to stories of those from the same group as you can be very validating and help with healing your indoctrination, but it can also be highly triggering. Some report that connecting with other ex-members of the NKT in person or online was very helpful in validating their perception and intuition, others did not find it so helpful. It may be helpful at some times and not others depending on your difficulties and needs.

The Exposing the New Kadampa Tradition Facebook group is focused on exposing them and is heavily monitored by the NKT, so in my opinion this is not a safe place for recent leavers to share their emotional experiences. A safe place for sharing would be closed and facilitated by an appropriately trained person. This does not yet exist for ex-NKT. There also appears to be more ‘in-fighting’ between ex-members of the NKT than other groups. Personally, it was important for me to be able to leave the group of ex-members at times, as this sometimes felt like another trauma bond leading back to the NKT. 

The most ‘enlightening’ experiences of mine were actually hearing the stories of and spending time with ex-cult members who were not from the NKT. Hearing their stories helped me understand that different cultic groups are remarkably similar, validating my own experience. According to The Open Minds Foundation this is called ‘Paralleling’ and is less threatening to the ex member’s pseudo-cult personality than hearing about their own group from critics. Social media allows us to connect with other people who have had similar experiences all over the world.

Your 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 you of your right to boundaries and to say no. The one I used is below (author unknown). You may wish to write your own based on your current beliefs and values however. 

  • 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)

Any feedback on the above is welcome below.

Further reading

The Open Minds Foundation’s page on Recovery Strategies

Wendy Ford’s book ‘Recovery from abusive groups:

If you live in America, this book on leaving is recommended by The Open Minds Foundation.

Janja Lalich and Madeline Tobias Taking Back Your Life

If you were raised in the group this book is recommended.

%d bloggers like this: