This is especially for those who feel confused, trapped, or unable to voice what it is they are going through.
A dream remembered, waking me up at 5 am:
“I confront our old teacher for continuously abusing people and especially those close to him, calling him out for the same behavior that also made me and others leave. I recall that it was the hardest decision I had ever made in my life; me leaving. It was a dream of standing up for others and expressing the collective anger in order to bring understanding. Tears streaming, energy moving, waking up from the slumber of ignorance; ignorance to how we hurt others through our lack of receptivity.”
In a separate note, I write directly after the dream, remembering my own experience years back:
If one has to muster up all the courage they have to tell the truth to a person in power, and they stand alone in doing so because everyone else in the related community is too afraid to challenge such a “teacher” or “elder”, then the problem is actually a lot worse than we think it is. This power gone unchecked will hurt countless people through manipulation, lying and all kinds of subtle psychobabble that aims to make the other feel insane for ever trying to bring up their lived experience to said person(s) in power.
How does this happen? I have long reflected on the ways that ‘spiritual’ communities (or any organized communities that have a person or a group of people in power out of balance) can operate in a state where nothing changes, because I lived in one myself. After finally leaving, in a relative way, I was angry. I was bitter, hurt and wanted nothing more than for the story of the suffering to disappear so I could get on with living ‘normally’. Yet, of course, it surfaced again and again in other communities, where folks were too afraid to be “kicked out of the circle” for voicing the shared experience, feeling too threatened by the power dynamic that loomed over them and their potential decision to either say something or even leave the community. In seeing the metaphor so easily in the garden, if that vigorously growing weed isn’t paid attention to in the beginning it becomes way harder to deal later! All that hiding and making believe all is good under some guise of hoping it evens out or that something will change (when nothing does) shows me that the hiding just gets accrued in some invisible but very felt way, and that this inevitably brings the house down.
The teachings that unraveled over the years for me, played into the fact that in an absolute way, it was perfectly orchestrated so that I could learn to stand up for myself and learn to listen to my own guidance, which is hard to do when you have handed all that power over to someone else. After all, who asked to be put up on the pedestal? I was starving for spiritual knowledge and jumped head first into a teacher-student relationship that ended up being manipulative and quite damaging. It was one where the responsibility of the teacher seemed to be able to rationalize their experience, to justify their actions, as being superior to the student(s) (i.e. me and the other members of the community).
The tricky part about relationships like these is that alongside the strange and traumatic parts are also aspects of great learning and love. The nuance here is thick and can be very difficult to differentiate, which also seems to be very human. It is challenging for the initial anger to transform into understanding. Something like, “hurt people hurt people” comes to mind. I have seen many of these retreat centers pride themselves on ‘transformation’, but they don’t seem to really be transforming…
So they say “if it lands in your lap”, then now you have the opportunity or even the responsibility to say something. A handful of old and new friends have come to me in the years that followed with very similar situations and these encounters really inspired me to start to put together these thoughts and write this out. I appreciate the patience had by all.
So, what are some of the signs that you may be entering into a community with a dynamic that is unhealthy? Here are some I have gleaned.
1. The community has been running for many years, but no one has stayed for a significant period of time. Those that have stayed for a while then choose to leave all for similar reasons, OR you aren’t able to find out why they left at all, something like a cover-up. When asking about previous folks’ about their experience, you will get a feeling in your body; it might be obvious that something unpleasant caused them to leave.
2. If anything challenging is brought up, the folks in positions of power have little to no receptivity to take in the information and instead transfer it back to you as your fault. (Bypassing)
3. Lying and manipulation are seen to be common threads.
4. It is or becomes difficult to voice your concerns and you instead hold them in for fear of being ridiculed or left out.
5. The greater vision seems to justify the actions of using and abusing those closest. As I say, the vision can be blinding.
The truth is that difficulty will be found no matter where we look. That is time tested and human and I would even say necessary in order to forge the experience we need to grow. So, this isn’t a call out to a perfect and flawless community or group, because they won’t ever be found! What it actually is about, is accountability and receptivity, and the ability to face ourselves, together. This is certainly not easy, but the truth doesn’t shift to make us comfortable.
Time will teach trust in our experience. I remember first meeting my main teacher’s dearest friend, a brother who had lived with him for nearly a decade in Iquitos. Upon even hearing the name of the institute where I had lived, he shook his head in sadness. He exclaimed how several of those who sat with the medicine elsewhere had been told that where I had lived and its subsequent leadership was misguided and needed to be straightened out, one way or another. Even having not met him, he could feel this. He also pointed that people will continue to go there, and that it wasn’t my job to convince them not to, as everyone has their path and will experience what they need to in order to grow. For how are we in our limited view able to see what it is that people really need on their path?
This behavior seems rampant in the world, and with all good intention, I know most are out there trying to make a difference and inevitably get their own things entangled in the mix. Once again, this isn’t a call out for a perfect formation of rigid wonkers who ‘never’ make a mistake… this is a call out for actual leadership through living humility, not some bullet pointed list of actions to hope for. In being part of several communities in the years past, I can see where it becomes very easy as well to hide behind the mask of doing work for others in the name of good, yet is there a system of true accountability in place? What does that look like?
Adages exist for good reason, and “forgive and forget” is absolutely one of them. So, in the bringing up of these sort of feelings and experiences in myself, and even without specific detail, it is critical that I can commit to the latter, and reduce my clinging to remembering the pain. The beginning of the phrase we sometimes use that goes “I’ll never forget when…” has me always immediately reflect “but maybe I should!”
Sometimes it feels that folks you may meet in your life are supposed to be teaching you, supposed to be guiding you, paradoxically are teaching you in a more subtle and even direct way through their own error. How fortunate are we to be able to learn from this! If we can see these experiences as such, without necessarily keeping the cycle continuing, I think there is great capacity for healing through understanding. This naturally takes time.
This article is a call for deeper humanness, deeper commitment to respecting our brothers and sisters in this world, a head nod to sharing the stories that may benefit others to fully express what they need to, and to inspire the liberation of the things we hold back.
Out of the deepest love in my heart,