Questioning in a Spiritual Community

December 20, 2010

The Role of Questioning in a Spiritual Community

Spiritual communities vary of course, but there is a history, with its corresponding literature, of how some of them have not only abused power but also undermined the confidence and goodness of their members.

Most of us enter a spiritual path with curiosity, openness, and a willingness and desire to be genuine.  We may be searching for answers to deep, existential questions. It might be a transitional time in our lives or a time of crisis, or maybe we just want to make the world a better place.

The spiritual group may promise us hope for a happier life and answers to the world’s problems— if we follow the program and spiritual advice of the leader and his close associates.  Our new spiritual family also provides an instant social network and feeling that we are part of something bigger, such as working towards world peace, saving the environment, or another good cause.

However, the community may not be as open as it appears to be. We start to see this other side when authority is questioned, and when dissent is discouraged. Rather than respecting the critical intelligence of the members, those-in-power focus on business as usual and staying the course. When this occurs, dissent is marginalized and conformity and loyalty are rewarded.

For members of a spiritual community, it is not always easy to discern this form of rigidity. Most of us never get much time in the back-stage rooms of the teacher and the organization, which would afford us the opportunity to use our critical-thinking skills and truly examine both the teacher and the inner workings of the organization. Even if we do see behavior that belies the belief system
of the group, there are many ways we can rationalize these behaviors. We may file these observations away, until they accumulate in an avalanche of undeniable contradictions that scream out for acknowledgement.

To facilitate collective denial, community members tend toreframe questionable behavior as a “teaching” or remind us that our perceptions must be false and clouded because of our own inferior awareness or understanding.

Being Taken in By Appearances

Even though on a spiritual path we are supposed to thoroughly examine the teacher, using our critical intelligence prior to making a commitment with this person, scrutinizing is often discouraged. We, as humans, are vulnerable to appearances and can be extremely impressed by sales professionals and advertisers in our day-to-day consumer lives. How much more so in our spiritual lives? Even though so much is at stake and we are exhorted to examine and question a spiritual guide, we are often so open and vulnerable on a spiritual journey, that we can be easily impressed.

Questioning Finances

In organizations that lack transparency of finances, members don’t tend to openly question where their monies are actually going.  Administration fees remain a mystery because questioning is seen to be disloyal. It seems the organization has been set up to keep this information vague, mysterious and oblique, and healthy questioning is thus eliminated from one’s spiritual journey.

If one does question, this can lead to the threat of marginalization and abandonment by the leadership and the group. Once one has been convinced that one’s own perceptions are not to be trusted and that the teacher is operating from a higher realization and view, and therefore could never do anything wrong, questioning the finances would be seen as anathema. In a Tibetan Buddhist context, this can be seen as tantamount to breaking samaya. The set-up is further reinforced when the teacher only allows unquestioning students in close proximity to the actual realities of the situation, thus further walling off the back-stage behaviors from the front-stage appearances.  The inner circle of students is so devoted that everything the teacher does in the back-stage setting is reframed as part of their view, and every detail is made sense of within that view.

Consequences for Questioner

One-upsmanship and various forms of verbal and psychological abuse are reactive tools available to those who cannot entertain the possibility of critically questioning the leader and the situation. Instead, their response enables and supports the leadership and strengthens community members’ inclination to conform to the status quo.

There might be censure tactics against fellow students who speak out, or moralistic attacks that, in the case of Buddhist communities, appropriate the Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings to quell dissenters. Questioning is extremely threatening to those deeply invested in going along with the situation. Since loyal students are loath to believe anything critics say, having become the teacher’s instruments of silence, egregious behaviors that are exposed fall on deaf ears. In fact, the person who is disclosing the information becomes the issue, rather than the behavior of the leadership or the organization.

The discloser’s motivation, sincerity, honesty, and even sanity are called into question, thus assuring that seamless unquestioning will continue in the group. The moral authority of the teacher, even if it is simply a projection of the loyal followers, is far greater than the critic’s authority. Broaching the subject of improprieties of the organization and teacher is a very slippery and difficult road, so the deck is stacked in favor of the status quo continuing. This is particularly true when organizations encourage group thinking and experiencing, and use the media and internet to offer a seamless, teflon flow of “positive” information to the public.

It is difficult to overstate the effects these tactics have on members of a community, particularly if they have spent years embedded within the community. They don’t want to admit it has happened. This couldn’t have happened to them, they are too smart, too savvy and sophisticated to be fooled. They think this only happens to others – it can’t happen here. Many remain in a sort of no man’s land, neither denying nor admitting it.

The questionerwho is marginalized might experience feelings of loss, sadness, anger and confusion, oscillating with feelings of  betrayal, of being a fool, blaming themself, and distrusting ever again to put themself in such a position.  For those who fear to question because they are part of the group largely for social reasons, exposing the community’s underbelly is a form of social and tribal suicide, particularly when associated with the group for much of one’s adult social life. Most humans cannot easily extricate themselves from the complex social network of friends and associates that has been sustaining them. The situation is like that of a recovering addict who has to leave his still-addicted friends in order to lead a healthy life.

Consequences of Not Questioning

Some of us may never seriously consider the possibility that our spiritual path may actually have been hijacked. Many will vacillate between seeing clearly one day, then the next day burying their perceptions, and chastising themselves for being so disloyal for even having such thoughts.   The majority will watch from the sidelines, as those who speak out are made to feel crazy, disempowered, ostracized, ridiculed, taunted, or stonewalled by the true believers, and so decide it is not worth it. Better to just keep quiet, go along, and convince ourselves that this is the true path, rather than allow ourselves to raise points that bear further scrutiny.

We may rationalize that we are somehow protecting the authentic teachings by remaining loyal to the situation, but our silence actually enables the situation to continue. Some of us will just go away and never face the feelings that arise, ranging from shame and guilt to confusion and betrayal.

If the reality is that our spiritual journey was hijacked and we cannot face it, we will be blocked on our own spiritual journey. We may become closed and cut ourselves off to other opportunities to connect with a teacher and the teachings. Or we may blindly jump into another fantasy of projections with another teacher and situation, repeating the same patterns of blind devotion, once again leaving behind our critical faculties.

Taking Responsibility

For some in such a situation, the time may come to sweep away the cobwebs of vagueness, ambiguity, uncertainly, self-doubt and hesitation and start to critically process and honestly discuss it.

  • How do such characteristics manifest in a – our –  spiritual community, and how can we help each other truly recover?
  • How do we implicitly or explicitly perpetuate personal and group behavior that favors going-along, and discounts individual intelligence ?
  • Closer to home, in Shambhala language, do we trust our own perceptions? Do we have confidence in their, and our, unconditional basic goodness? Do we project that outwards while denying it in ourselves?

We are responsible for the choices we make, and for our own active ignoring. We need to consider the possibility that we have  fallen in line with something very different from what we signed up for, and that we may not be trusting our intelligence.

If we do not learn from this experience, we leave ourselves vulnerable to jumping into another scene and repeating the same patterns of naive devotion. This will affect others as well as ourselves. Taking stock and moving on requires understanding what has transpired, and learning from it, so it doesn’t happen again. We need to think clearly about our commitments, and examine the leadership and group in which we place our trust, especially when it has to do with something as important as the path to our own and others’ sanity.


This article was submitted to Radio Free Shambhala by an author who requested anonymity. It is published here after further editing by RFS staff.