Spiritual abuse in the teacher-student relationship

Harry Dijkshoorn shares his first-hand insights on spiritual abuse and offers some advice about how to step on the path to healing.

Spiritual abuse in the student teacher relationship

Harry Dijkshoorn explores how spiritual abuse between teacher and student can happen and offers some guidance on how to heal from it.

Meeting Yogi Bhajan

It was 1992 when I first met Yogi Bhajan in his ashram in New Mexico. My teacher at the time, Andrew Cohen, had been invited for an afternoon visit. We were aware that the scene around Yogi Bhajan was quite masculine. Andrew decided to take six male students with him. 

Everything worked like a military operation. As we entered the heavily-guarded gates of the ashram, strong, fearsome-looking, bearded men with turbans and automatic weapons hanging from their shoulders, welcomed us at the gate. A woman led us to Yogi Bhajan’s private quarters. 

We entered a wonderfully decorated salon and there sat Yogi Bhajan in a comfortable, reclining chair. He welcomed us casually and carried on with the business at hand, which mainly consisted of being waited on hand and foot

I have never seen anyone being served in such an extreme way. Almost every other minute, a woman (they were all women), dressed in immaculate, white robes offered him a sweet to eat, or a small glass of something to drink. They’d wipe his forehead, or his beard, while another woman massaged his feet or offered him a small piece of chocolate. This went on and on. I thought at the time that we, the students of Andrew Cohen, were fine devotees of the Guru, but this was on a completely different level. 

Falling from grace

The meeting continued, and I noted that Andrew and Yogi Bhajan got along quite well. Little did I know that I was sat with two leaders of flourishing spiritual communities, who would turn out to be vile abusers of their own students.

By all accounts, Yogi Bhajan was by then already deeply entrenched in a systematic indulgence of the dark, unexamined and traumatized corners of his own mind. Andrew was, at the time, starting to head in the same direction.

Andrew Cohen has long since crumbled as a spiritual teacher, forced by his own students to relinquish his exalted position as the leader of a well-known community. The effects of his demise were dramatic. The community rapidly collapsed with him as he fell. Yogi Bhajan managed to stay in control of his empire until the day he died. This, in spite of years of accusations of abuse of power and sexual abuse. 

How does spiritual abuse happen

But how is it possible that someone who inspires and so deeply touches throngs of people – even to the point of dedicating their lives to service – can simultaneously display such a massive failing, ethically and humanly, as if they have no moral footing at all? These questions became my own predicament after being subjected to my teacher’s malicious inclinations. 

Needless to say, there is no student without a good number of their own shortcomings. But this particular set of unique circumstances usually involves:
– a teacher or guide – meant to be the embodiment of wisdom on the path to liberation,
– and a student who, after thorough scrutiny, decides to devote his life to this cause.
Obviously, the student is in a very vulnerable position, placing themselves, as it were, in the hands of their teacher.

The pattern of abuse

The pattern is often as follows: first there is the ‘honeymoon period’ between teacher and student. This can last years so that the student has good reason to have enormous faith and trust in their teacher. But slowly and gradually, often almost imperceptibly, the teacher’s behaviour begins to change.

We need to understand here that most teachers set out with a genuine motivation to help others. Under the pressure of responsibility that their position inevitably brings, their own unresolved childhood patterns will arise. They are almost always highly intelligent, so the combination of self-centered behaviour and the qualities of a genuine, caring guide can seem extremely confusing. 

Imperceptible changes

There is a deep need for the teacher to remain as the ‘one who knows’, the one who ‘can see the way forward’ for the student. Some teachers have narcissistic tendencies and, when left unchecked, these can take a heavy toll on the student. The teacher will still exude the love/wisdom that attracted the student in the first place. But now this is interspersed with mood swings, displeasure with his students, anger and even fits of rage. Naturally, the devoted student will interpret this as ‘fierce love’. The teacher is the ‘embodiment of love’, after all.              

I know first hand the inner devastation, confusion and pain when you deeply trust someone who appears to be a doorway to the divine, and then that trust proves to have been misplaced. The doorway that once beckoned, so full of the brightest, radiant light, starts to darken, the lights dims…

And in response we deny, justify, rationalize, look away. Anything but draw the inevitable, common-sense conclusion which goes against everything we believe. That is, my “perfect” teacher is flawed, very flawed, maybe even an abuser. When these patterns become habitual, accepted and explained away, abuse becomes systemic. 

Parent/child, Teacher/student

In many ways, patterns between teacher and student resemble those of parent and child. The parent is all-powerful, the child all-dependent. The parent assumes the role of the all-knowing one, the teacher assumes the role of the all-knowing one. Unfortunately, just as most parents are far from all-knowing, likewise are most teachers, gurus, priests, sheiks, shamans, meditation teachers and popes, far from omniscient. 

No human being is perfect, all-knowing or infallible. So often, we lose our own inner compass of right and wrong and common sense in the potentially transformative field of trust, faith and surrender to a higher power.

But the answer to the question, ‘how is it possible that a person who embodies such divinity, wisdom and love can, at the same time, exhibit such abysmal behaviour of abuse, often with those who are closest and dearest?” is almost universally the same. 

Teachers, gurus, priests, sheiks, popes, lamas may well possess wonderful qualities and are, without doubt, helpful to so many. However, remember, they all are still works-in-progress, with human shortcomings and unexamined personality traits. They are still human beings, often governed by fear, shame and guilt. Motivated into action by unprocessed, unconscious, painful tendencies from their own childhood. 

Silent complicity

Public shaming and blaming often occur in broad daylight. In this way, all involved become complicit in the abuse. A culture of silence ensues. Only an inner circle of students are ‘privileged’ to receive the ‘grace’ of this ‘tough love’ inflicted by the teacher as a ‘means for their spiritual growth’. 

This silent complicity causes shame and guilt, and leaves deep scars in the soul. “How could I have participated in these atrocities?”, we lament in disbelief much later on. We had given our hearts, we wanted so much to believe that we had found the highest good. Our teacher had proven himself to be so full of care, compassion, love and wisdom. And yet… 

When people are seen to ‘support’ and become ‘accomplices’ in the abusive behaviour of the teacher and when questioning the behaviour is regarded as a sin – i.e. a culture of silence is established – then the teacher is home-free and can get away with anything.

The burden of responsibility

There are many teachers whose sense of morality and conscience is sufficiently developed to withstand the temptation to act out their darker impulses. Unfortunately, though, there are those who have taken on a role of responsibility far before they are ready to responsibly carry that burden. These people will give in to their own unexamined needs, wants and desperate desires. They continue to perpetuate the cycle of abuse that they themselves have received.

Spiritual abuse is, like every form of abuse, deeply scarring. How deep the longing of the soul is to return home! Spiritual transgression in the delicate relationship of trust between teacher and student, is the abuse of a person’s spiritual heart, the source of the delicate longing for the Divine. And how the soul hurts when trust proves itself to have been misplaced. 

The effects of spiritual abuse

I have my own story to tell of the complex dynamics that occur within the relationship of a spiritual student and his guide. I was part of a new religious movement for 15 years and a close attendant to the leader. It took me another 15 years to recover from the abuse I received. 

Whether the violation takes place in a Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or unaffiliated setting makes no difference. The dynamics are the same: an abuse of power by an inspiring, charismatic leader, leading to manipulation and control over people’s lives. 

When the leader has a narcissistic streak, then abuse is never far away. It is unfortunate that spiritual abuse is an everyday reality for so many people in every religious affiliation. In the last twenty or thirty years, the examples of fallen gurus or priests are too numerous to cite.

Those who have been at the receiving end of spiritual abuse often feel ashamed, manipulated, intimidated and humiliated. The effects of spiritual abuse can be harrowing, as with any relational abuse. They can lead to a lack of self-respect, grief, low self- esteem, anxiety, depression, despair, even suicidal thoughts, as well as cynicism and rage. 

But there is something deeper and more critical than even that. Not only does it destroy our trust and faith in humanity, it leaves us with a profoundly damaged relationship with the Divine. We are now without any trust in the very source of life.

The long-term damage of spiritual abuse should not be minimised. Coming to terms with what has happened may take years. It’s a hard road to travel, but once you’re on it there’s no turning back. Please know that all this suffering is never in vain and healing is possible. 

Essential steps for healing

  1. Allow yourself to grieve.
  2. Fully acknowledge the abuse and the denial that has taken place. 
  3. Share experiences with fellow ‘rebel students’ who have left the fold. Confide in good, wise friends.
  4. Keep your life as much as possible in order with work, tidiness at home, personal hygiene, exercise.
  5. From now on, own your right to have very clear boundaries. No-one is allowed to mistreat you. You are free to leave uncomfortable situations.
  6. Self-care, self-care, self-care – self-love. It is really OK to pamper yourself… Surround yourself with things that uplift you, make you happy. Bath salts, a rose, candles, scents, good friends, nature, mountains, beaches, exercise, chi-gung, yoga, music and good apple pie!
  7. Be willing to redefine yourself anew, allow yourself the freedom to find out who is the real you now.
  8. Find a good therapist or counsellor. Be critical in who you choose. Find a form of therapy that includes the body. Often our bodies have suffered quite a lot under the strain. Somatic Experiencing is a useful methodology to release our organism from traumatic residue.
  9. Speak to God, the Divine, in whichever name or form you relate to it. Complain, scream, shout, curse, give your anger and pain to Him/Her/It – it belongs there in the first place. It will help heal your spiritual heart. 
  10. See yourself gradually finding your way through this labyrinth. Besides all the challenges and pain, this rocky and thorny path will undoubtedly bring many gifts and great blessings for your growth, both personally and spiritually. And then, when trust in life and trust in the Divine are re-establishing themselves in you, you can be sure you are well on your way. You can be very proud of yourself for the journey you are in the process of completing. 

You will come out richer and wiser, like an elder – though maybe still young in years – ready to take your place in this great mystery of life, and shine your light while the angels rejoice in you doing so.

About the author

Harry Dijkshoorn is a teacher on EkhartYoga and counsellor specialising in trauma therapy and somatic experiencing. For more information, or if you’d like to work with Harry, please visit his website.

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Harry Dijkshoorn

Harry is a meditation teacher, trauma therapist and guides people on the path to Self-knowledge.