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6 Red Flags that your Spiritual Community May Be Abusive

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Did you hear Oprah’s speech at the 2018 Golden Globe awards?

Her final wish:

“And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say “Me too” again.”

The “Me too” movement is washing through many industries–entertainment, sports, politics, and others–but there is one area which has stayed strangely silent.

The spiritual community.

Despite what we all want to believe, spiritual communities, from churches and spiritual leaders, to meditation groups and yoga teachers, are not immune to abuses of power, sexual misconduct, and sexual harassment.

And there are many examples.

Years ago, my yoga community grappled with what to do when a senior yoga teacher was accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct. Just like Hollywood, many people had known what was going on but no one had spoken out.

…until one day, when many women spoke out.

So let’s start the conversation now. Let’s talk about the conditions that allow the abuse to exist and no one to speak out.

Spiritual communities have some unique challenges when addressing the issues of power and abuse. But once you recognize these traits, you will be sensitive to the signs and be able to choose healthy communities for your practice.

Why it’s hard for spiritual communities to admit to abuse

The myth of being “too spiritual” for abuse

When you visit a spiritual community or meditation group, one of the first things you’ll notice is how open and warm-hearted people are.

It’s baked in.

People are drawn to spiritual practice with the sweet desire to challenge themselves, grow, and become a wiser, more loving person. They are often seeking truth and connection.

With a whole community of people wanting to do good, you might think they would be safe from abuse.

It’s exactly this assumption that makes admitting there’s abuse particularly hard. No one wants to admit how flawed, and how completely human, they and their communities are.

It’s hard to be vulnerable–and self-protective

If you’re in a spiritual community, you’re probably there to grow.

This is a good thing.

You’re probably learning new ways to see your circumstances and looking deeply within yourself. You might be releasing old patterns.

Often this process of growing requires that you put your complete trust into your spiritual teacher and the process, even if you don’t understand it, or you think it’s odd.

But this openness has a shadow side. It can make you ignore your gut and get in situations which you wouldn’t tolerate in a different setting.

When your sense of self-protection is by-passed, you are vulnerable to abuses of power or sexual misconduct.

Cross-cultural social cues can be confusing

The final challenge to some spiritual communities is a cultural divide between the spiritual teacher and the followers. Without a shared cultural language, social signals can be misjudged. People without integrity can take advantage of this.

Signs that your spiritual community may be unhealthy

1. Questioning the teacher is discouraged.

If you notice behaviors in the teacher that are confusing, it’s natural to want to understand what is going on.

If your community discourages you from questioning him, that is a red flag.

Sometimes people don’t forbid you to ask question outright. Instead, you may be shamed or patronized. People might say things like, “When you practice more, you’ll understand.” In the worst cases, you could be shunned for not being an advanced practitioner or enough of a believer.

You are always free to ask about things that don’t seem right. If your community doesn’t agree, it may be time to look more deeply at what is going on.

2. The teacher’s helpers are anxious and competitive

Many spiritual leaders have a core group of trusted individuals who help them and support them.

However, sometimes those positions close to the teacher are used as bait to keep people from questioning abuse.

If the in-group around the leader is insecure and constantly competes for attention, or if the group is constantly changing as people in favor come and go, this could be a sign of something wrong.

Mature, stable leaders pick mature, stable helpers. They all work together without need to win the attention of the person in charge.

3. There are rumors of sexual, financial, or interpersonal misconduct

Rumors are tricky.

Of course, rumors aren’t necessarily true.

On the other hand, sometimes they are. Often rampant abuse is known by a wide circle. Disbelieving the rumors only helps keep what is going on secret.

If you hear rumors, ask questions. Find out what is true and what is not.

4. You feel ill-at-ease

Few people will say that the spiritual path is easy and without discomfort. It’s expected that you’ll feel awkwardness as you grow and transform.

But abandoning your common sense, instincts and gut-feelings is not part of that process.

If you feel uncomfortable in a situation, get yourself out of it. Reflect on it outside the group and see if your discomfort is a sign of personal growth–or a warning.

5. Your loved ones are not happy with your new practice

Sometimes when you join a new spiritual community or meditation group, your loved ones don’t like it. It’s different than what they know and they may not like your new ideas.

But sometimes your loved ones can see things you can’t.

Be careful not to dismiss their concerns too lightly.

6. The leader criticizes other types of practice

If your spiritual leader criticizes other forms of practice, claims to be the one true spiritual leader, or discourages you from leaving, be very cautious.

It’s OK to try different spiritual practices. Each technique, tradition, or teacher has something different to offer and you won’t know what is best for you until you try it.

Be wary if someone tries to convince you otherwise.

Be a new kind of spiritual practitioner

Abuse of power and sexual misconduct can happen anywhere, even in spiritual communities.

If we want to stop it, we need spiritual leaders and practitioners who are brave enough to stand up and say no. We need people who are brave enough to speak out when it does happen. We need to discard the assumption that “anything the spiritual leader does is OK.”

And most of all, we need to temper our desire to follow the spiritual path with common sense and healthy boundaries.

The “Me too” movement includes everyone in every circumstance. Let’s start the conversation in the meditation community so that no one has to say “Me too” in their spiritual practice.

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