If we had known how to deal with a narcissist before getting close to Sogyal Rinpoche, would we have avoided the worst of him? Did those who avoided being abused by him do these kinds of things naturally? I’d love to read your answers to these questions.
I certainly kept my distance, even when I was asked to be national director many years ago. I said, ‘No,’ because I could see how it was for those in that role. I didn’t see anything other than the verbal abuse and the relentless driving of his team, but it was enough for me to know that I didn’t want to be in that role – no matter how much it was supposed to hasten my journey to enlightenment. Knowing what I know now, that Sogyal Rinpoche physically, emotionally, sexually and financially abused his close students, I’m really glad I stayed out of any role that would have brought me into his orbit.
Many weren’t so lucky! I hope these points on how to deal with a narcissist will protect you in future – even if the person trying to manipulate you might not fit all the boxes for narcissistic personality disorder. It’s not only narcissists who try to manipulate us.
One of the things I learned about in the year after I discovered that Sogyal Rinpoche abused his close students was narcissistic personality disorder. In order to avoid potential abuse, all spiritual seekers should examine the question, is your guru a narcissist? Or was he or she a narcissist?
Narcissists are everywhere, and they are dangerous people who manipulate others for their own gain. They are masters at coercive control and often become abusive. If you know what to look for, you can see the signs of narcissistic personality disorder in people around you. Donald Trump is a good example of someone with narcissistic personality disorder and so was Sogyal Rinpoche.
I think it’s vital that we all know how to spot a narcissist so we can avoid being manipulated by one. They are able to be very charming, loving and alluring when it suits them, so it’s easy to get sucked in.
Charlotte Ward and David Voas first coined the term “conspirituality” in 2011, to describe the merger of conspiracy theories and New Age spirituality. I like to put a hyphen between the con and spirituality because it is a con. Spirituality is conscripted into the service of gurus and influencers concerned only with their success in terms of numbers of followers, who can then be turned into paying customers. When these gurus start espousing conspiracy theories, their followers – if they’re not critical thinkers and misinformation resilient – tend to believe them, and so the theories proliferate. Fact or fiction, the more people share them, the more people believe them. It’s easy to share that meme or opinion because it seems okay on the surface, but not checking it carefully before sharing is dangerous, for us and for society.
Just look at Trump’s conspiracy theory about the 2020 election. The result is the destabilisation of American society and an assault on the Capitol building.
The Tibetan Buddhist teachings warn that where there is the greatest potential for enlightenment there is also the greatest chance of delusion. If you embark on the spiritual path without correct understanding of the subtle concepts involved, your desire to ‘wake up’ to your true self could lead you deeper into delusion. This is why they say that Vajrayana and Dzogchen should only be undertaken with a qualitied teacher who can make sure that the student doesn’t misunderstand the subtle teachings. But it also applies to any level of spiritual study and practice.
This morning I went for a swim in the rain, then I wrote what I guess you could call a piece of contemplative poetry. I share it, not because it is anything special, but because it’s not. I want to celebrate the ordinary, the freedom of not trying to be anything, of not seeking, not chasing after peace or enlightenment or anything else, just being me – whatever that is. Not knowing is fine. Not defining anything is fine. Everything is fine, even when it’s not.
I recently recorded a video in which I shared what I do when I feel helpless. I shared it because I figure that I’m not the only one feeling helpless, at least occasionally, when we look at the world situation, particularly climate change and the dire predictions for our future. In the video I share how the way I deal with such an emotion takes me from a place where I feel helpless to a place where I realise that I’m not actually as helpless as I think I am. In the video that’s a kind of esoteric place – for want of a better word – but that’s not the end of the story. What I find interesting is how the sense of empowerment gained through working with an emotion in that way can help me find ways to help on the level of action in the physical world.
In this video I talk about creativity as a form of meditation, art as meditation, and personal art as a focus for contemplation. I talk about visual art and craft – including flower arranging – but it also applies to the performing arts, of course. And even to creating gardens and home decorating, anything where you can put aside your thoughts and tune into the deep well of creativity inside you, the creative mind that, in my experience, is the same as the ‘meditative’ mind.
I know quite a few in the Beyond the Temple community who find a refuge in creativity and who create art of some form. Some of them do use art as meditation and contemplation. I mention colouring in in the video, but I also know a painter, two photographers, several musicians and many who create beautiful gardens and homes or who simply appreciate looking at something beautiful.
I’ve noticed that just about everyone I know who has left a
Tibetan Buddhist cult has moved more into the world than they did while a
Tibetan Buddhist. During our decades of Tibetan Buddhist study and practice, we
focused very much on ourselves and our own ‘spiritual progress’, despite the
teachings on love and compassion where our focus was supposed to be on others.
The ‘logic’ behind that was that we can’t really help others until we have sufficient wisdom and compassion ourselves to know what is the wisest course of action. This makes sense to me to a degree, but I saw the result of taking this attitude to its extreme point just after the truth of Sogyal’s abuse became public knowledge. A friend, who is still a Rigpa devotee and who remained faithful to the idea of Sogyal as a Mahasiddha, told me that though he felt sad for those who ‘felt’ they’d been hurt, he couldn’t do anything to help them at the moment because his focus was on gaining enlightenment ‘for the sake of others’. He felt that at some time in the future, once he’d gained enlightenment, then he would be able to do what was wise and compassionate. In the meantime, he just carried on with his self-focus. This is the epitome of a spirituality that is so inwardly focused that it is completely divorced from the world.
Changing the world requires a change of consciousness. Think
about the big shifts in human development – the French Revolution; the
abolishment of slavery; voting rights for women; equal opportunity for all regardless
of race or gender – when these ideas first appeared, the mainstream thought
them extreme and they met a lot of resistance, but eventually enough people saw
the importance of breaking out of old patterns that our civilisation made these
changes, changes that benefitted a huge number of people.
The shift in consciousness required now is essentially one
that changes our pattern of plundering the natural world (e.g. burning fossil
fuels) to one of caring for it (e.g. using renewable energy sources).
‘Humanity needs a transformation of belief – a drastic reshaping of human values. People around the world must come to see the planet as our “common home,” one that we share with other countries and other species.’
James Engell Professor at Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences English Department