What Can a Spiritual Community Learn From Those Who Leave the Fold?

Go on, write your story
Even if in the end you might outgrow me
I’ll always treasure the chapter that was mine
And twist through time with a smile, knowing you’re free
– Brother Ali, You Say (Puppy Love)

Most of what I’ve written since exiting the Gaudiya Vaishnava worldview has been perspectives and criticisms that are understandably difficult for those still in the tradition to appreciate. This post is an attempt to set those ideological differences aside as much as possible and offer what insight I think can be gleaned by members within their own framework. In other words, what useful lesson is there for existing members of a spiritual community when they look at a case like mine? A case of not only leaving a community, but being outspoken against it. Obviously we are unlikely to share philosophical and theological views, but I believe there may still be something worthwhile.

When I “came out” so to speak, I was met with mixed reactions. Some were supportive, some were silent and never to be heard from again, and some were antagonistic. What I didn’t see was people doubting the internal pain and agony I tried to honestly convey in my exit letter and subsequent posts. It was clear enough, whether people saw it as the result of cultic abuse (like I do) or my own fault for a lack of faith and spiritual practice, nobody seemed to doubt the heartache I was living with. Furthermore, I would speculate that very few wished that pain on me, even as I became enemy #1 in my former community. A few, in their own hurt and anger, probably did wish me ill, but most I think did not. 

I would like to believe that most spiritual communities, while saddened or startled by the departure of a member, would still wish that person happiness and fulfillment, even if they don’t believe true fulfillment exists outside of their ideology. How then, can spiritual communities minimize the hurt (and animosity) felt by many of those who inevitably fade away, as some always will?

The most simple and direct answer to that is: do not operate on the assumption that a given spiritual practice and lifestyle will be best for each person. Accept that people are unique and we cannot treat others like we know the ultimate best course for them, no matter how far-reaching or panacea-like one believes their teachings to be. The truth of this is something that can be plainly observed time and time again. We cannot begrudge others their own passions and their own concepts of happiness, even if we think those ideas dead wrong. Forcing someone against their own internal sense of what is good for them is a recipe for disaster, and it often takes place in the guise of welcomed assistance.

Therefore, the onus in this case is on existing members and leaders to be sensitive to the needs, often unexpressed, of new and younger members. When someone is bringing another into a spiritual community, they carry immense psychological influence over that person. For that reason, they must work to minimize the subtle and overt ways they might be inserting their own hopes and agenda into their guidance of another. The role of a truly loving guide or mentor should always be to bring out the individual’s best interest, even if that best interest ends up being distance, not closeness, from the spiritual community that they initially bonded over. 

When you enter into that sort of mentor-apprentice arrangement you are, interestingly, consenting to be in a vulnerable position, and so it is absolutely crucial that the teacher […and wider community] all work to protect and nurture the student, to guard against actions that may not be in her or his best interest. That also involves, by the way, being clear with the student if he or she demonstrates behavior that suggests they are not psychologically, emotionally or physically healthy enough to engage in the work together, which requires that the teacher be lucid and perceptive enough to do so. – Hollie Sue Mann “Thoughts on The Teacher-Student Relationship

This is also extremely important in family dynamics. If parents raising their children in a certain ideology truly love and want their kids to be happy more than to suffer, then they ought make it abundantly and repeatedly clear that their love transcends ideology. No matter what, some children will decide as they grow that the spiritual beliefs they were raised in are not for them. That is rarely an easy transition, and it is only made harder by the sense that the love of their family hinges on shared religious ideology. In groups like the Mormons or Jehovah’s witnesses, where they have formal and strict shunning procedures, there is so much pain and hurt, often lasting a lifetime, for those who choose to leave. 

To simplify the point, if someone truly cares about the happiness of others they will be more discerning and less aggressive in trying to indoctrinate them, if for no other reason than the undeniable fact that it will not always be the right doctrine for everyone at all times. Here we butt up against the fact that many groups have core teachings about the universality of their path and how when properly understood, it is the only real happiness, anyway. To minimize the pain of children and others, members should question this belief, or at least how they act on it.

I would like to end with an anecdote from my own experience. As I was becoming serious about the Krishna Consciousness path in my late teens, I reached out to family friends, a couple who I had always known to be more strict and dedicated than my own household was; parental figures who I felt could help guide me. And indeed they did. In a mixture of my own desire for intense dedication and their grooming, I was guided to my future guru and his sect. I met him for the first time in their home, and a few months later moved into his temple, where I was based for the following almost seven years. 

When I emerged from the entire tradition struggling, hurt, and determined to bring light to the injustices I witnessed and participated in as a leader in the organization, these same mentors of my past had not a peep for me. They still had deep faith in the guru, and the supposed love for me as an individual they had known since my birth took the form of never contacting me and instead doing damage control work on behalf of the community. In the following months, both of them wrote and published articles (1 and 2) seeking to invalidate me and the very true issues I had brought to light. There was zero acknowledgment of the psychological abuse and financial manipulation that they and so many others had also experienced. Instead, without naming me, I was denigrated and blamed for not having faith, not pleasing the guru, not chanting enough, being offensive, and for blaming others for what were really stains on my own soul and psyche. The same people who played a huge role in bringing me into an environment of daily coercion and abuse, denied the existence of that abuse and blamed me. 

 If there is something to be gleaned by members from a story like mine, it is to avoid setting yourself up to react like that when the proverbial stool inevitably hits fan.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


  1. May 29, 2016

    It’s great to communicate your reasons for leaving. Such comments are directed towards those still in the belief-system, as it gives them information that might be helpful in deciding whether to leave.

    It’s ALSO great to re-examine your reasons for embracing the belief-system in the first place. After all, there will *always* be people in the world seeking to indoctrinate you into one mind-set or another. The best defense against getting entangled isn’t to criticize the indocrinators… but to recognize the illusions or desires of your own that led you to “take the bait.” Examining your own role would be directed to those not yet in the belief-system, as it would give them insight that might be helpful in avoiding their own entrapment.

  2. May 29, 2016

    Stuart, I agree with your point. That said, I can’t help but notice that every comment you’ve ever left on this blog has an implication of me not taking responsibility or needing to own my own role in the past. What I’ve written is not mutually exclusive with that idea. Furthermore, I was born into a some degree of indoctrination in this ideology, and it that changes how much volition one might typically have or not have when they enter into such an environment. But more importantly, there is immense deception and coercion at every stage of the recruitment process. Nobody signs up to be enslaved. The issues some (not all) cult members bring with them or that make them vulnerable aren’t valid faults to hold against them for their involvement.

    But I do agree that for individual healing and education it is worthwhile to highlight the inner processes that helped one end up under authoritarian control, and I do plan to write on that as time goes on as well. But you tread a delicate when you assume and tell people that it was some inner lacking or need that drove them to be abused. And you certainly should not hold against them their need to articulate and validate the wrongdoings done to them.

Comments are closed.