One of the questions we often hear about those in Rigpa who attested to the abuse they experienced is: “If they felt abused why did they stay so long?”
To cast some light on this we have a post by an ex-student and UKCP Registered Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist and Energy Psychotherapist.
Why didn’t they leave?
For those with histories of abandonment, the thought of further abandonments is terrifying and anxiety provoking. People with a background of insecure attachment in childhood, often struggle to fully respect themselves and often feel they do not deserve better treatment. Abuse also creates attachment to the abuser, so that people will endure unacceptable treatment and cling on. Intransigent dysfunctional attachment patterns may stretch back over many a generations resulting in feelings of hopelessness, emptiness and despair of ever being loved, so attachment to the Lama becomes even more important.
The traumatic humiliations at Rigpa would activate these family patterns. I know for myself when I was at Rigpa that when I was regularly publicly shamed, I would completely dissociate, including disconnecting from my Vajra nature, and instead I would get stuck in ‘fight flight freeze’ – a trauma mode for ‘survival’. For me it was generally the freeze variety of trauma mode which renders us helpless and immobile – it played right into my own patterns where I was regularly humiliated by both parents. This public shaming did not help me at all to become liberated from these traumatic patterns. Instead, when I left Rigpa, I had no sense of a healthy self, and it took me many years to build some self-esteem – although I will nonetheless always grateful for the introduction to the nature of my mind which kept me sane.
Attachment to the ‘bad object’
Bullying, which creates ‘victims’ and ‘abusers’, is a particular feature of some attachment disorders. Research in attachment theory shows very plainly that if people are bullied and treated badly it creates attachment and dependence on the bullies. (e.g. Stockholm syndrome where people who are being tortured become attached to and dependent upon their torturers). People often wonder why people remain in situations of domestic violence, where the combination of abuse followed by love is very toxic and creates further dependency, especially if it mirrors attachment patterns from the person’s own traumatic childhood.
In the psycho-analytic language of ‘object relations’ theory, this is a well know problem which is termed “attachment to the ‘bad object’“ ( theorists Fairbairn, Sanders and others write extensively about this.) Research shows unequivocally that the primary need of human beings is for connection (i.e. Love). This need for connection is a survival issue which takes priority over anything else, and is more important even than the need for food.
Better the devil you know
Since the bully destroys any sense of self of the person they are bullying, when the bullied person gets used to the situation, it ironically feels ‘safer’ to stay with what is familiar – what we know and retain attachment to/connection with the abuser – than to leave. So bullying relationships twist us up. If the person who bullies (parent /vajra master/sadistic torturer) is also at the same time your object of safety (dependence/taking refuge) it becomes very confusing. Better the devil you know, than abandonment and no connection/attachment at all.
This is further compounded when we add the spiritual dimension. Since the word tantra means thread – our sacred link or connection – it becomes even more traumatic when a teacher abuses that link of trust, particularly if students feel they may go to Vajra hell if they speak out. When we impose on this the view that “everything the teacher does is a teaching”, and that we must maintain our “pure perception”, students end up losing their discriminating wisdom and accept abusive behaviour as normal. This is a very twisted dynamic.
The Rigpa ‘dysfunctional family’
The dynamics of the Rigpa ‘dysfunctional family’, with its incestuous undertones of ‘keeping everything in the family’ plays its part in keeping everyone in place.
When students are required to witness group humiliations meted out to ‘errant’ students as part of their ‘training’, many similarly freeze, and end up resorting to the defences of their ‘adapted’ compliant self – what Winnicott ( a psychoanalyst) termed the ‘false’ self’ as a defence against facing the truth of how terrible such public shamings actually are. It also means that those who feel abused rather than more enlightened from a public shaming do not feel they can talk to anyone about it; after all, hundreds of people watch the proceedings without batting an eyelid. If everyone else thinks it’s okay, then to step outside of that dynamic and say, ‘No this is not okay,’ is very difficult.
It may be useful to reflect on how individually and collectively we have all contributed to this situation. A spiritual teacher’s narcissism becomes inflated by blind devotion from close students who model how students are supposed to behave. Both teacher and student then are caught in a dysfunctional double bind which makes it difficult for people to leave. In the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ phenomena, we may have felt too frightened to own our perceptions, and instead, deferred to the group norm or someone else’s supposed ‘authority’.
Blessing or abuse?
The other factor in this spiritual environment that keeps students in place is the idea that the behaviour that looks to any normal Westerner like abuse is not abuse but ‘crazy wisdom’ – the unconventional behaviour of an enlightened being exhibited for the purpose of bringing a student closer to enlightenment. Students believe that they are special for being singled out for this kind of treatment, and they do not see it as abuse, they see it as a blessing, indeed as a form of great love. They believe it is a teaching for them, and so they genuinely try for years to use it as such. This is why people remaining in the organisation even if they have been subjected to the same behaviour as that attested to by the Eight may still deny they have been abused. For some, since they use it for that purpose, such treatment may well unblock something. For those it does not have a beneficial effect on, however, it takes some time for the realisation to dawn that it is not bringing them closer to enlightenment, but rather closer to physical and emotional breakdown. After that realisation, they still face the difficulties of leaving, which for those financially reliant on the organisation or valuable to its functioning can be considerable.
Though it is relatively easy for the general student to leave. It is not a simple matter for someone trying to escape a situation with the dynamics of domestic abuse. Fear is a real factor in remaining in an abusive situation.
The domestic violence answer
Note Leslie Steiner’s rationalisation of her situation. “I never once thought of myself as a battered wife. Instead, I was a very strong woman in love with a deeply troubled man.”
She didn’t see the abuse as abuse. In Rigpa the rationalisation is that it is ‘training’ or ‘crazy wisdom’. The general pattern is that students ‘close to the fire’ have emotional or physical breakdowns before they leave, and even then, they will not see what they experienced as abuse. For so long as their trauma goes unacknowledged they are not in a healthy state of mind.
This link is to the specifically relevant part of Leslie’s TED talk posted on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/TED/videos/10159481226450652/?fref=gs&dti=118333772112331&hc_location=group
This is her full talk.