What IS Spiritual Abuse?
So, what exactly do I mean by Spiritual Abuse? Let’s back up a step and set up some definitions.
Values, intention, and action that create an intimate connection with something larger than yourself, sufficiently intense to suffuse your selfhood—inspiring feelings of awe, wonder, worship, and service.
I believe this definition is specific enough to account for most religiously inspired concepts of spirituality—while broad enough to encompass the secular spirituality of scientists, humanists, atheists, social activists, and more. (Please feel free to help me tweak it in the comments below.)
I’ll never forget a wonderful afternoon spent with an agnostic astronomer who spoke of the awe and fulfillment he felt in the presence of the desert night sky—with the same passion and radiant glow on his face as an ascetic saint in a devotional painting.
So, to my way of thinking, any form of religion, spiritual practice, 12-Step meeting, mysticism, talking with God, compassion for our fellow humans, worshiping ancestors, love for one’s family, appreciating Art, Science, or Nature, and so many more may all be spiritual paths worthy of respect.
Spiritual abuse occurs when a group or leader manipulates members by appealing to Unquestioned Goods larger than the self to achieve the group’s ends, whether leaders invoke God, Buddha, Enlightenment, Going Clear, the Bible, the Vedas, the Constitution, psychological health, the American Way, Success, or some other external, unchallengeable principle.
Looked at from the other end of the telescope: Any organization, family group, or individual that causes members’ suffering in order to fulfill the leader’s needs for power, money, adulation, or personal gratification1 commits spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abuse flourishes between member and toxic group when one experiences involuntary pain and dysfunction due to high-intensity demands on one’s time, energy, money, and/or emotional resources to fulfill the group’s dictates.
So saith the Circular Sages on Wikipedia.
Psychological trauma may create long-lasting, maiming emotional states and destructive behaviors. It comes after a threat or series of threats to your life, body, or mind that trigger life-or-death panic or terror long after the event itself.
What would “Spiritual Trauma” be?
Bewildering damage to your sense of self, meaning, purpose, and connection to loved ones, the world, or a Higher Power—sufficiently severe to compel pain and dysfunction.2
Too vague? Some examples:
- An Eastern meditation group claims to raise members to enlightenment through breathing exercises, meditation, and most important of all, devotion to the guru.It touts itself as the world’s largest NGO charity, but has built no hospitals, donated no money to the homeless, in fact, used donations to simply grow their own membership—and support the “guru” in a lavish lifestyle.Meanwhile, insiders report being emotionally blackmailed to perform seva, or service to the guru, by herding in new members, especially rich, wealthy, attractive, or talented ones.I have worked with women insiders from this organization, Art of Living, who reported their guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, personally requested they entice prime recruits by having sex with them or even marrying them.3
Shankar reportedly claims to be Jesus, Krishna, God. It’s hard for me to believe either Jesus OR Krishna encouraged prostitution to further a world movement.
- A quasi-Christian group in New England promised salvation through faith in its leader, who claimed to be God on Earth. News reports and former members allege that Brother Julius had multiple wives, slept with any female member he fancied, and turned a blind eye toward molestation of group children.
- But some spiritual abuse is less extreme—and happens in mainline churches.Like my client’s nondenominational church that demanded more and more involvement in nearly daily church activities—until his family dissolved in divorce.Or another client’s Protestant congregation that purged all members who didn’t agree with the new pastor’s rigid fundamentalism, shunning them as disloyal, sinful, ungodly.Or a Bible “youth camp” that trains teenagers for the approaching Holy War against unbelievers.
- Or the global scandal of clergy abuse rocking the Catholic and other faiths.
Defining Spiritual Abuse, for me, is not about the beliefs of a group. To an outsider most religions—or even the Elks—are incomprehensible.
Nor is it about intention—most of these groups have lofty, if unattainable goals.
It’s about manipulation, fraud, deceit, and devastating damage—what groups or leaders do or members experience—not doctrine.
Whether intentional or not, spiritual abuse is the long con—practiced by leaders claiming to be Women or Men of God—if not God Him-, Her-, or Itself.
- Such as sex, drugs, or lavish lifestyle.
- Victor Frankl‘s logotherapy has influenced some of my thinking.
- I am not aware of media or other documentation for these reports. I have worked with 12 former AoL members over approximately 10 years, all but two considering themselves insiders. Four women reported that Ravi Shankar personally requested they begin relationships with males useful to the Art of Living movement; one male recruit’s wealthy and influential family believed he was the target of this manipulation. All reports reported similar behaviors.