This is an enormous topic to address in one sit-down, but here is the first stab at something which I hope to devote more time to in the future. I have an eclectic spiritual history. I had started writing a memoir about my spiritual journey when I realized I needed to delve deeper into the effects of abuse in my childhood. At the core of every event in my life is understanding the mind of an abused child. It is so central to who I am, and the thoughts and beliefs that shaped my choices and decisions. For me, spiritual growth goes hand in hand with emotional and psychological growth. Over the years, and in many different formats, I’ve also seen a lot of spiritual abuse. People who abuse emotionally, physically, sexually, and financially, are the same people who abuse spiritually.
Here is my brief spiritual resume. My mother was raised Catholic and my father was raised Protestant. Both of them left their faiths before they had me and my brother, but distorted fragments of their religious upbringing were evident in the way we were raised. They also practiced Transcendental Meditation, which my brother and I eventually learned in high school. We both attended Maharishi International University and spent time with many of the higher ups in the organization. After I left “the movement,” I worked as a professional psychic for a time, and got more familiar with the work of Don Miguel Ruiz and other Toltec folks. I also worked for Deepak Chopra. In my twenties, I had a God experience which lead me to become a Christian. I attended mostly non-denominational churches and did a lot of work with Christians in the arts. Several years later, my husband, who grew up in more evangelical-style churches, and I were confirmed in the Catholic church. I could write a book about each of these stages and experiences, and it’s challenging to summarize.
In general, I believe that if someone is truly seeking beauty, goodness and truth, then that which is beautiful, good and true will reveal itself. I also believe it is possible to find goodness, beauty, and truth in many forms. It is up to the individual to decide what that looks like in their life. For some, it is found in organized religion, and for others, the dysfunction in organized religion is an impediment to their spiritual growth. One’s spiritual life is deeply personal. It can inspire amazing change and deep growth. It can be powerful. And wherever there is power, there are those who wish to use and abuse it for their own gain.
Because of my diverse spiritual history, I have been in many “inner rooms” where people had no idea what people from a different faith or belief system thought. Many of them were operating from lies and misconceptions about the other, and weren’t really interested in educating themselves otherwise. So here are some thoughts on some things that all spiritual groups have in common:
1. Spiritual abuse is everywhere. It is not limited to a specific type of denomination or organization. Abuse is a disordered human condition. No one is safe from it, not even atheists.
2. Where there is spiritual pride, there is spiritual abuse. The second someone sees themselves as being “better than” or “more evolved than” another person or belief system, they are at high risk of participating in abusive patterns.
3. Abusers will spread false assumptions about “the other,” and will classify groups of people in a way that generally puts them down, i.e. “All Muslims are terrorists.” “All Catholics are pedophiles.”
4. Spiritual abuse typically translates to a lust for power. There is a spiritual leader who uses spirituality to control others. Often, the power comes from “group think” which is unlikely to be challenged by any outsiders.
5. Spiritual groups that are most at risk are the ones lead by a single charismatic leader. The more accountability and transparency, the better.
There are specifics which I hope to address about my own spiritual journey later. For me, it comes down to these questions. Do you feel a sense of freedom? Are you invited to express your own thoughts and ideas? Do you feel heard? When you challenge your spiritual leaders, do they respond with respect and gratitude? I believe it is possible to find these healthy patterns within the boundaries of religion, but if it’s not your experience, wherever you are, it’s time to wake up.