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I’m in the Caribbean.
In my second year of this tenure living in a spiritual community.
I’m at my wit’s end.
I’ve decided to leave, cutting my six-month commitment short. Distraught, I go to my teacher, the one directly responsible for me and my studies. “I have to leave,” I tell her, uncertain, mumbling.
“What are you going to do instead?” She asks. She seems angry.
“I want to go to school,” I say quietly.
“How will you pay for it?” She says, bitingly.
“I don’t know.” At this point, I don’t even have the money for a flight back to the States. I am scared sh*tless.
The next day, my teacher tells me that she has brought the issue to her teacher, one of the board members—the enlightened spiritual guru at this particular retreat centre. His advice is for me to stay. That if I go, if I break my commitment, I will be creating bad karma for myself.
I stick to my druthers.
I begin my story here because I would like to draw attention to the juxtaposition between me here, in this spiritual community, and me before, when I was traveling and living abroad.
Prior to this tenure, I spent six months flashpacking through India, getting intentionally poisoned and lengthily interrogated for entering and exiting the country too many times. I spent three months backpacking through nearly the entirety of Madagascar. I fell in love and decided to move to Cairo just weeks after the 2011 popular uprising, when every travel advisory told us that it was not safe to be in Egypt.
Then, unbeknownst to me, I gave up my personal agency. In a state of distress, I slowly lost myself in this spiritual community. I lost my confidence. I was sad. I was depressed. I was grieving my father’s death and my early sexual abuse without knowing it. I was using spirituality as a way to save me. As a salve. As an addiction. This is generally why we find ourselves in such places.
It took me longer than I like to admit to see just how unhealthy the overall environment truly was. Teachers were sleeping with their students and hiding it for fear of breaking their celibate vows. Students were being led to believe this was a part of their spiritual journey, instead of seeing it for what it was: being taken advantage of.
And all of this under the guise of enlightenment and spiritual attainment. If only we would add a touch of psychology to our spirituality.
I’m going to introduce something I’m calling “spiritual gaslighting.” (Or, “gasenlightening.” Let’s see if that catches on.) Gaslighting is crazy-making. It’s the process of causing one to question whether what they believe to be true for them is in fact true at all. It’s a systematic breakdown of one’s mental faculties. And, in a setting like a spiritual community, where you are learning that nearly everything you once held to be true might in fact be false, where better for teachers and gurus to employ such a manipulative tactic?
A lot of people have heard of gaslighting, although perhaps not everyone knows the history of this psychological term. I actually love how we’ve adopted it. The term comes from a play of the same name. In it, a manipulative husband, whilst trying to find jewels in the flat above theirs, uses the lessening and heightening of the gaslights to slowly convince his wife that she is going insane and cannot trust herself as she hears his footsteps above. Such a wonderful analogy.
Today, if you catch your partner in a lie, and they counter by saying that you’re “being crazy,” this could technically be considered gaslighting. You see, by calling one crazy, it takes the blame off of the abuser and instead makes one question their own sanity. And this is a fantastic argument, when we take into account many of our beliefs around what normal and crazy are.
Really, since the onset of the medical model, we have gotten into separating these two. You are either normal and healthy and sane, or you do something that is morally suspect, something that goes against the grain, and you’re insane, you’re crazy. And crazy people can’t be trusted to know what is right and good and real, right? So, if you’re crazy, then maybe you made up the abuse you thought happened. Maybe you’re wrong about your partner cheating or hurting you. Maybe you’re the problem.
Now, I think it’s really important to mention that, although it could be a completely rational, intentional choice on the part of the person employing gaslighting tactics, I would argue that it often is not. How many people really think to themselves beforehand, “I’m going to systematically manipulate this person into believing that what they think is happening, is not really happening?” Not many.
By and large, gaslighting gets used as a way to protect ourselves from a reality in which we have to come to terms with the idea that what we have done, or are doing, is wrong or hurtful in some way. The spiritual teacher who thinks they have surmounted unhealthy behaviours, and does everything as a “lesson” rather than making mistakes like the rest of us, is a good example of the individual who is mindlessly and unconsciously gaslighting those around them.
The entire concept of a spiritual teacher or guru is predicated on this idea that they know better somehow than their students and that it’s their job to lead us toward the glittery door they’ve found. Who wants a spiritual teacher who can admit they know as little as the next guy? That they’ve been, and still are, just as hurt, just as broken, just as traumatised as the people coming to wash and kiss their feet?
Spiritual gaslighting is just as manipulative as any of its other forms. Its particular flavour is that of using the very principles found in nearly all of these traditions—surrendering to the guru, killing the ego, the shadow—to slowly convince one that what they might think is an unhealthy behaviour is in fact leading them toward a higher level of spirituality.
In its extreme form, this is convincing a student to have sexual relations with their teacher—a person in a position of power in relation to them—in order to merge or experience a level of tantric practice heretofore unknown.
To a lesser degree, spiritual gaslighting is using superfluous lessons, out of context, to convince a distressed individual that they need to be doing something differently. Using the threat of incurring bad karma to keep me in my place, although I doubt it was ever the intention, was in fact a form of spiritual gaslighting. Steering me toward believing that something bad might happen if I did the thing they didn’t want me to do, although in-line with many of the more boring treatises of the tradition, was in fact purely manipulative behaviour.
And, when we are at our tenderest, most open, when we are in a place in our lives where we need someone to be there for us, to direct us, when we have found a teacher or mentor or even a therapist to help us in some way, a great deal of responsibility is placed on these individuals. The power that they hold is immense and cannot be understated.
And, if we find ourselves in this position of power, as I have, both in a spiritual domain and now as a therapist/coach of sorts, it is our responsibility to have gleaned the simple truth that we are no more enlightened than those seeking help from us. The only armour, perhaps, we now must employ is that of the boundaries and resilience we ourselves have hopefully learned during our own path through the absurdity that is this life.
So, please, if you are on a spiritual path of some sort, remember to take a step back at times. Remember to remember yourself. Remember that you know what you want and what you need.
Remember that teachers and mentors are better utilised as partners and not as parental figures. Remember that, as wise as any person you meet may be, as knowledgeable or learned as they are, they are no better or worse off as you yourself. Try not to forget that they probably found the same tradition that you’ve now found when they were in just as much distress as you feel you are in.
And try not to forget that unhindered spirituality comes from letting go. Just as we must learn to let go of what we seek, so too our teachers must be able to let go of what they once sought. Because, when we both loosen, then we can actually meet.
But, when we hold on, when we hold tight to our teacher or our teacher holds tight to us, we’ve lost the very special magic that is our own personal agency.
And that is true, pure spirituality—from my perspective.