Questioning in a Spiritual Community

December 20, 2010 by     Print This Post Print This Post

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.


109 Responses to “Questioning in a Spiritual Community”

  1. mw hulbert on January 10th, 2011 12:24 pm

    This post is timely. thank you, all of you. I had connected with a shambala community one year ago after having moved and was searching for sangha. My root tradition is vipasanna and was confident mindfulness practice would translate nicely to my curiosity of a tradition home to Pema Chodron.

    Yesterday, I completed the GES weekend and walked out the door vowing not to return. Searching the net for answers I came across this web page. The words of the anonymous post could have been my own.

    Though, what to do now? As the writer says of these situations, I am very fond of the sangha community. Then again, i’m reminded of the story of the teacher burning down the student’s meditation hut every time he finds contentment. Change. Uncertainty. Groundlessness. The teacher has shown up, damn it, though I’m at a loss. Is shambala really an unhealthy community? 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9
    I suppose it depends on who one asks. Even the vipasanna community has it’s shadow. All communities do. Though nothing what I’ve seen here.

  2. Judy Schenk on January 10th, 2011 12:36 pm

    Hi mw,
    I’ve certainly felt that way as well.
    Can you articulate what it was that made you not want to return..?

  3. Mahakala on January 10th, 2011 1:24 pm

    35 Year Member – I realize you have been wounded severely, and that anyone who may touch upon such wounds may be causing a great deal of pain, and thus will experience your wrath. However I do not consider your wrath particularly “justified”, just as I do not consider any aspect of mind to be “justified”. Understandable? Yes, of course.

    It is telling that you compare yourself to the family of a murder or rape victim. I would consider this a bit of hyperbole at best. Moreover, you yourself are responsible for how you relate to the events of your life – whatever they may be. It is not my responsibility to coddle you, regardless of how entitled you feel.

    Everyone has encountered suffering in their lives. If you truly want to “get real”, you should come to realize this. Countless people have in fact suffered incredibly worse situations than yours and are still quite able to get past it. However, if you simply wish to wallow and indulge in your own reactivity – that is your choice.

    Perhaps you may regard anything I say as “cultish”, because that will place (for you) an effective barrier against any acceptance of what you cannot bear to hear. In fact you may even regard the local waiter as “cultish” when he forgets to bring your water to the table. Personally I don’t see much of a difference when it comes to the end results attained.

    If this is what I had to show for 35 years of practice, I might be just as upset as you are. However – for 35 years of just living a human life, it seems extremely reasonable.

  4. James Elliott on January 11th, 2011 3:06 am

    Mahakala is right about letting go, if the issues discussed here are very narrowly defined as one’s own happiness and problems associated exclusively with fixation.

    However as soon as we get beyond the navel gazing phase of working with the mind, something Buddhism has a bit of a reputation for, we might find it incumbent upon us to relate to other people and the kaleidoscope of cultural and individual influences we find ourselves in. We are in fact not separate from that. Detaching oneself from one’s perceptions of what is happening in our environment is then not a form og liberation (from what?) it is synonymous with turning one’s back and walking away… from ourselves. That is not a solution, it is part of the problem. On this Chris and I might actually agree.

    Regardless of whatever side of whatever heavenly gate one imagines oneself on, there are things which require something substantially more than another higher version of letting go. That isn’t the answer to all problems.

    Even if not often it has happened that appointed administrators and acharayas abuse members; lying, bullying, denigrating, or have used spiritual principles in twisted ways to accomplish personal agendas. I could list examples. I have seen these kinds of disingenuous manipulations protected by the central administration. The people who notice them and lodge complaints are seen as the problem rather than the perpetrators. I honestly don’t understand this. It’s an extremely primitive response.

    If these kinds of issues are defined not as abuses of implied spiritual or temporal authority, not only by us, but by those who are actually responsible, if instead they are defined as ‘old students versus new students’ or loyal members versus disloyal, then we are witnessing not a form of liberation, a way to accomplish happiness, but a further form of imprisonment and a ‘higher’ way to denigrate those who don’t see things as we want them to.

    By the way… If a waiter doesn’t bring water to your table, he ain’t doin’ his job. It doesn’t matter if you call it cultish, forgetful, charlatan, lazy, unimportant, not worth mentioning or whatever, the result is the same: thirst.

  5. Chris on January 11th, 2011 11:42 am

    James, I have always thought we agreed on a lot, actually. Our styles are different, but ignoring doesn’t seem to be an option for us.



  6. mw hulbert on January 11th, 2011 12:40 pm

    Gratitude to Suzanne who posted on 12/24,
    ‘Shenpa is a Tibetan word for tightening, contracting when we get hooked by a perception of threat or challenge. The tightening often brings a strong urge to react in a habitual way. Instead of questioning our urge to react habitually, or questioning our perception of a situation, we try to defend the underlying (mostly unconscious) belief that we perceive to be threatened.
    It seems to me that there can be ‘group (or social) shenpa,’

    I’ve concluded that I will use engagement with my shambhala sangha the opportunity to deepen shenpa practice. When aversion or attachment arises, enter into the associated body sense-sensation of these fetters and watch them burn themselves up along with the karmic debt.

    Shambhala, or any community involvement, requires independent study on the cushion and that sangha serves as the laboratory to collect data.
    That’s all. All the rest is suffering.

    Thank you, Suzanne

  7. loki on January 11th, 2011 9:06 pm

    Has anyone here read The Guru Papers by Kramer and Alstad? It would be highly relevant to this discussion.

  8. Invoking the Magic of the Third Jewel : Radio Free Shambhala on June 1st, 2011 7:43 am

    […] fact, Mark Szpakowski went so far as to assert on this website that it is necessary to dissociate from Shambhala […]

  9. judy on October 27th, 2011 6:06 am

    Hey Lee,
    I really enjoyed your last post about things in China, and your thoughts on VCTR. So interesting.