March 26, 2020

Abuse, Manipulation & Gaslighting: The Dark Side of Spirituality.

“Rape is always invited, it never happens.” ~ Yogi Bhajan


My heart hurts above my breastbone where my heart chakra is supposed to be.

How can I be open with this kind of abusive, victim-blaming bullsh*t being passed off as spiritual wisdom?

I choose to be open to it, right now at this moment. I imagine hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people, who heard their teacher speak those words, and I feel confusion, anger, and pain.

Yogi Bhajan founded 3HO, a global organization that shares his teachings and trains people in Kundalini yoga, a powerful practice for millions. Yet his legacy is littered with manipulation and sexual misconduct.

He is yet another spiritual leader who now faces exposure. How will the community respond?

In a YouTube interview, Pamela Saharah Dyson states:

“The main thing they need to do to survive is be honest. And being honest is going to involve taking him down off the pedestal—off the altar.”

Pamela was his assistant for years and details her experiences in Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage: My Life with Yogi Bhajan.

My mother speaks about his empowerment of women. Imagine my confusion coming across a recording, not a quote, his words in his own voice, gaslighting rape victims, saying with absolute authority that it was something in their subconscious that invited rape.

There’s that pain in my chest again. My head feels heavy, my vision a little blurry. As I type, my fingers stumble.

This indicates that my body and mind are processing information at different rates. My conscious and subconscious are not in alignment with the information I just introduced. This is cognitive dissonance. The physical sensations and accompanying mental state are a trauma response. This response makes it difficult to have conversations around topics like abuse, but that doesn’t make them any less necessary—it makes them more so.

So what is spiritual abuse?

It is when a person who has assumed or been assigned a position of authority—as a spiritual leader—performs acts that are unconscionable to their station, ethically abhorrent, illegal, or inhumane, or willfully harms or shares information that causes harm or excuses harm done to another person for any reason, but in particular, for reasons of religious doctrine. That is spiritual abuse. That’s my definition.

Modern reports of sexual abuse of children, from the Catholic Church, have gotten global attention, but this pattern extends to the 1100s by some accounts. Untold damage has been done and systematically covered up for hundreds of years. 

Child abuse is awful. Abuse from a person in a position of spiritual authority is particularly vile.

We are encouraged to open up to them. They are placed in a position of power. They are meant to care for our soul. With those toxic seeds planted, a child’s faith is polluted. How can they relearn to trust in their own basic goodness and the goodness of life?

As a healer and hypnotherapist, my job is to help people recover their innocence. Under trauma and betrayal, their light still glows. About 80 percent of my practice is sexual assault survivors. Most are women, but recently, I have been encountering men who are specifically survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Both the violation and the cover-up are acts of abuse. 

It is not just children who fall prey. Adults also unwittingly subject themselves to spiritual abuse. 

Hundreds of women have come forward with sexual assault accusations, spanning decades, against a spiritual healer in Brazil known as John of God. One of them is his own daughter, who said her abuse began at age 10, as part of a ritual. At one point, Oprah promoted this man; she has since removed his interview from her site. Over the years, thousands made the pilgrimage to Abadiania, Brazil, including a Dutch dance choreographer, Zahira Lieneke Mous. She came to heal from past sexual trauma—only to be raped under his care and told that the assault was part of her therapy. 

But they’re adults, right? They should be responsible for themselves?

Yes, their discernment should function well enough to know when they are being lured—legs open—into a sexual misconduct trap. But the big “should” here is that it shouldn’t be happening.

No matter what Yogi Bhajan says—it is not the victim’s fault.

This brings us to spiritual gaslighting. This is when a person (sometimes well-meaning) attempts to insert their own reality, while simultaneously discrediting or devaluing the abused experience, using phrases like:

Your soul created this experience for your growth.

You chose this before you came here.

This person helped you to become the person you are; you should be grateful for the lessons they showed you.

We are not required to thank our abusers for shaping our personalities any more than we are required to forgive them in order to heal. Yes, I said that, and let me say it more clearly: f*ck forgiving perpetrators.

I know, forgiveness is thought to be a panacea for all of our wounds. But it’s not. Premature forgiveness can do more damage than good when it comes to healing, as it can cause us to spiritually bypass emotions we need to feel to fully process an experience. It is our return to our power that truly heals us. And that starts with us feeling safe.

So how do we create a world in which we live with principles that are founded in spiritual integrity?

We need to be more scrupulous about who we let into our internal world. Their ideas and values gain access to our holiest of holies—our minds and hearts. We need to be rational, discerning, and loving. All this “live by your heart” propaganda can be co-opted and manipulated by people who know the lingo, yet practice no emotional or relational accountability themselves.

We need not turn off our minds in favor of our hearts—but marry them with our flesh to form a truly powerful and sacred alliance. While we’re at it, let’s include the body of the earth because we need that too. We can’t live without her.

Accept no doctrine in which we treat ourselves or others poorly, or that trains us to think less of others, or dehumanizes them in any way. Accept no doctrine that asks us to give up rational thought for fanatical ideas or practices. 

Honestly, if I had my way, we would devote ourselves to liberating our creative energy from our trauma bonds, both societal and personal. We would demand accountability in all areas of our lives starting with ourselves, moving through the world with compassion and discernment.

Our spirituality must include our humanity. We must not turn a blind eye to what we do not wish to see, hear, or feel. No matter how hard it is, we must choose to remain aware and open and from that place take action.

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