Spiritual Abuse

Abuse involves the idea of a harm done over and over again. If a person is beat up once, that is not abuse. If that person is beaten up over and over again by the same person, that is physical abuse. So abuse also involves the person being abused staying in the position where the repeated pattern can take place. If someone hits me once and I walk away from them forever, they don’t have a chance to be a physical abuser. But if I go back to them and they hit me again, and I go back again, then they are given the chance to be a physical abuser.

Physical abuse is when a person is beaten repeatedly. Mental abuse is when a person is mentally put down over and over again. Is there such a thing as spiritual abuse? If so, how does it differ from mental abuse?

Abuse is fundamentally about power. The abuser confuses their strength with domination. When they dominate another, instead of seeing the other’s pain, they see only their own strength. The abuser falls prey to an illusion, where their act of domination looks to them merely a positive, well intentioned, constructive thing – even a sacrifice on their part for what it is costing them – and the abused person’s pain looks to them merely like weakness and ingratitude.

Abuse is often possible when the abused to some extent falls prey to the same illusion – that the abuser’s domination is a positive and that their own actions are a negative which calls for the abuser’s corrective actions. Hence the abused walks back into the same situation and the pattern is able to repeat. To walk away from an abusive situation is to walk away from this shared illusion. For the abused to stop sharing the abuser’s perspective – to flip the narrative and to see oneself as strong and the abuser as weak in a deep way, and to see it is ok to leave the abuser to their delusional perspective.

In mental abuse – like between a father and a son, or between a teacher and a student – the abuser uses the power differential to substitute for some insecurity they have. In the movie Dead Poet’s Society, the emotionally abusive father wants his son to be a doctor and can’t hear that his son desperately wants to be an actor. He bellows at his son, “I have sacrificed too much for you to throw it all away! You will go to med school, and once you become a doctor, you can do whatever you want.” The father genuinely loves his son, and assumes his sternness is an expression of his love. The son as well assumes this, and so is unable to talk back – for he fears that to talk back, and to assert his independence, would be a betrayal of his father’s love. The son senses vividly the unfairness of his father’s actions, but feels powerless to step out of the shared assumption of father and son that his father’s mental abuse is really not mental abuse at all, but just an expression of his love.

Spiritual abuse is when the abuser uses a spiritual identity – such as a priest or a guru – to domination the abused. When a priest sexually abuses a child, the spiritual abuse also takes the form of physical abuse. When a guru makes a follower succumb to the guru’s personal needs, the spiritual abuse also take the from of mental abuse.

Each person has a sense of a better self that they can be and that they are striving to be. In abuse this natural and transformative orientation towards personal change gets conflated with the ego needs of a person external to oneself – so that the abused hears the abuser’s voice not only as that of a separate other self, but as channeling one’s own better self. As if the abuser has a better grasp on the abused’s better self than the abused himself does. This is what gives the abuser power over the abused. As long as the abused doubts his own sense of his self-worth and his sense of his better self and looks to the abuser to help him grow, the pattern of abuse continues. And as the abused is stuck, so too is the abuser. The abuser’s sense of his own better self becomes merged with the power he holds over the abused, and without that power, he feels he has no way to gauge his own growth.

*****

I knew my father loved me very much. I felt it all the time – a pure, full, unconditional love. But it was the very fullness of his love which made me wonder why he couldn’t understand that at times our philosophical interactions were painful to me. That what started as simple, happy conversations about philosophy had transformed into, from my perspective, a form of spiritual abuse on his part. That the way the conversations were set up started to feel suffocating to me, and that what seemed to him my continual failure, year after year, to “catch his point” was due not to my failure, but to a blind spot in his thinking. But I didn’t think this for many years. From 16 to well into my late 20s I kept “going back” to him and to those conversations, thinking that the fault must be with me, that he is highlighting my limitations and it is my ego and my faults and my inability to be “more spiritual”, “more daring”, “to pursue the Truth more passionately” which was tripping me up. That left to myself I would be stuck, and that I needed to go back to him so that I could grow.

There was definitely spiritual abuse. I can say it now without feeling guilt. But there was also something else merged with that abuse. It was a battle of wills. I was driven by the same question over and over: How is it that my father who loves me so much can be so dense to the pain he is causing me?

It took me years, but I finally figured it out. My father did indeed love me as himself. That is the key. He was unable to hear what I was saying because, in a deep way, since when he got married, he had locked away a part of himself. There was a pain deep in his psyche, which he managed to hide from himself, and even from his mother and siblings and the broader family. To everyone else he was Satyam the strong, balanced, resolute, unshakable son, husband, father, brother, uncle, friend. Like his mother, my father did not easily “show weakness” – a sense of confusion, or self-doubt, or uncertainty. It was a personality thing: no matter what happened, he was not overwhelmed.

This was not fake. It was real. He was a mechanical engineer in India, and in his 20s, due to an accident at work, he lost an eye. When his boss came to visit him in the hospital, the boss was distraught, and asked my father if there was anything he could do. My father, with a mischievous smile, said, “How about a raise?”

There are innumerable stories like this of my father, told to me by himself, but also by my mother, my grandmother, my aunts and uncles, and some even by his colleagues. I saw it myself many times. When something painful happened – such as losing an eye, or losing his engineering job in America and having to work at a gas station, or dealing with health issues and chronic pain – my father was not one to externally process his emotions. Whatever fear, anger, frustration, anxiety he felt, it was processed by him usually deep in his psyche – or at most mainly with my mother, or perhaps with my brother and myself sometimes. But mostly it was within himself.

For he mainly saw any anxiety not as a reality to be dealt with in the social domain, but as a trick of the mind – an illusion of consciousness – which was to be battled philosophically in the depths of himself. He often didn’t share his anxieties or his fears because he didn’t want to treat them as real – as in, he didn’t want to give them reality in his own mind.

Conceptually, before his identities as a father or a son or husband or an employee or a neighbor, he was always engaged in an battle between himself as the universal self and himself as Satyam Vallabha the ego self. The loss of the eye, the heart attack, the loss of his teeth, the loss of a job, the loss of a career as an engineer, the pain of a family dispute, the process of aging and its pains – all these which he no doubt felt as keenly as any person does, were also for him ultimately not losses of who he was, but changing scenery and properties of the form Satyam Vallabha, and which didn’t and couldn’t disturb the pure consciousness which is beyond form.

So, as I said, my father’s strength was not a put-on, something done for show. It was a big part of him. But when I started talking philosophy with him, I started to see something else. That there was nonetheless some unresolved pain and tension within him – something which the form Satyam Vallabha didn’t really process and was himself only dimly aware of.

In Star Trek, Spock as a Vulcan is able to mind-meld: by placing three fingers on a person’s head, he is able to merge his consciousness with that of the other person, thereby having access to his memories, emotions and the deeper realms of his mind.

That is the closest way I can describe what philosophical engagement with my father was like for me. I could feel his love for him in his being completely unguarded with me. And by nature I am an empath – someone who easily and naturally feels another person’s emotions and moods, and can move in the space of that without losing my sense of self. When done in contexts of healing and intensity, I get charged by it and experience it as exciting in the way an archeologist might feel exploring a new dig.

To be presented with my father’s mind – conscious and unconscious – to explore was like discovering Atlantis. Not just because it was my father’s mind, but because the philosophical space he opened up for me seemed to unveil a whole level of consciousness which in ordinary society we don’t talk about – and where we act as if everything is done by clearly identifiable beliefs and desires about ordinary objects like cars, money, movies and families.

Part of the excitement for me was that, riddled as I was with tensions of India and America, teenagerhood and adulthood, social groups and my insecurities, to tap into my father’s sense of the Universal Self was like taking peyote and riding with the Shaman into the Dream World. The world of my fractured identities and adolescent pains and immigrant confusions seemed to fade into the mists of a lower level of reality, and so the pains of that world lost their bite and their urgency. The emotions didn’t affect me as directly anymore, as I was not just Bharath Vallabha the teenage immigrant. That was just a form of the broader consciousness of reality, and Bharath’s pains no more attached to me than that of a person walking on the street. Instead of feeling Bharath’s pains and confusions from within, as if I was surrounded by them and unable to step outside of them, traveling with my father’s consciousness helped me see Bharath’s pain and confusions from the outside – as if they were somebody else’s, someone to whom I could relate to empathy for his pain the way I might with a child than to identify with it as if it were mine.

The first year or so of the philosophical explorations with my father were pure bliss. It didn’t matter that my father didn’t talk to me about how I was coping with America, or with my high school friends. He was doing something better, more immediate, more visceral, more healing. He was helping transform my very consciousness and so letting me see that I was in reality neither Indian nor American, neither child nor adult, neither cool nor strange. That the categories of these social anxieties were deeply confused, and that there was a reality to myself and all people that went much beyond any of these categories.

It really felt like a miracle. My broader family and my school seemed to function in the world of the everyday anxieties and identities where Indian and American, white and black and brown were the terms of my realities – and in which there was no peace to be found. And I was feeling all this anxiety very intensely, even though I didn’t know how to talk about it – feeling it intensely in part because I didn’t know whether it could even be talked about. And suddenly, my father had opened, as it were, an inner gate in my mind, like Gandalf leading Frodo out of the Shire, opening into a way of seeing the world which altered my very sense of reality and who I was, and in which I could step back from my anxieties and breathe out in peace, instead of feeling suffocated by them.

And then the tensions began.

*****

In the initial euphoria of the mind-meld with my father’s consciousness, everything seemed open for exploration. Nothing was off limits. In that heady excitement, I most probably conflated my father’s consciousness with the universal consciousness – a conflation it would take me years to unwind.

But soon I started to sense that my father’s consciousness wasn’t just a space of universal consciousness. It wasn’t all free exploration and detached bliss. There were definite spots of pain, of identification, of grasping as Satyam Vallabha as opposed to the detachment of Brahman.

Now there started to arise a curtness in some of his responses. Answers being repeated. He started to show a creeping disappointment, as if his son who he had introduced to the higher realms of consciousness was faltering and was unable to leave the lower realms. And yet to me the strenuousness of his rebuttals of me suggested that there was actually some deeper tension within his consciousness that he had not yet resolved, and which he had only instead repressed.

To see what he repressed, we need to go back to the time he was deciding to get married.

Before marriage my father was very outspoken in his family about his philosophical interests. His parents knew he was thinking of becoming a monk, though they weren’t sure how seriously to take that. But whether he was serious or not, what jumps out to me was that prior to marriage my father’s philosophical self was his public self. By nature my father was an extrovert, and he was extroverted in expressing his philosophical ideas as well. And when my grandfather was alive, my father didn’t have to think about his family role so much, and was freer to explore his philosophical interests explicitly.

When my grandfather passed away in 1970, my father, at the age of 29, as the oldest son became responsible for the family: his mother and those of his siblings who were not yet married. Even before my grandfather passed away, my father was probably drifting away from the monk path. But after his father’s death, the monk path was entirely closed. He embraced entirely the path of marriage and family responsibility.

With his marriage his philosophical interests turned more inward and less open to his family. The crucial decision for him was how to relate to his widowed mother. In older days a widow in India would shave her head, give up wearing colorful saris or jewelry, and in general withdraw from the pleasures of life. My father and his siblings didn’t want to do this and instead wanted their mother, who had a tough life, to enjoy her remaining life – especially as she was still only in her 40s.

For my father this meant that he – in a spirit of modernity and feminism – wanted my grandmother to play the role her husband, and be the head of the family. But whereas my grandfather was more philosophical in spirit, my grandmother, though very strong willed and independent, wasn’t as much. So to abide by his dharma as a son, my father started to internalize his philosophy, as something separate from his family role. He came to see being explicitly philosophical as contrary to his duties as a son.

This is the moment in my father’s life that interests me a great deal. What must it have been like to go from thinking about being a monk – the very symbol of spirituality externalized – to not just not being a monk, but to publicly in his day to day life submerge his spiritual interests to that of, as he saw it, his duties as a son?

Most people in my family would probably think this is a funny question and that I am overanalyzing the situation. And my father’s own happy demeanor would suggest that it was not as stressful for him as I am making it out to seem. But families tend to cover over the more interesting and painful emotions with narratives of “normalcy”.

My father’s life doesn’t belong just to me, but to my mother and my brother as well, and to his siblings and others as well. Each has their own story of my father, and they are entitled to it. What follows below is my understanding of his story.

My sense is that due to his submerging his spiritual interests to his mother’s dominance in the family, my father – like many a man – escaped into his work for his independence. He threw himself into his job as a production manager in a ball bearings company – his role was a combination of engineering and sales. This led to him working 16 hour days, and as part of sales, going out with clients to entertain them and coming home late at night, and leaving early in the morning again. He smoked, he drank, he worked hard and had a tight circle of friends. It was in his friends’ circle that his philosophical identity found expression. The space in which he could step back from his family and even work identities and share with his friends his inner consciousness that he is not ultimately Satyam Vallabha, and that Satyam is only a passing form of the deeper reality.

I have fond memories of my father in India: going to the movies, riding on his motorbike, looking at stars with him late at night. He was a doting, loving father. But I also have memories of my mother waiting late at night, worried about his safety after drinking and riding his motorbike home at 1am. And of fights between my parents. It’s hard to see in any of this my father the philosopher. Would a man at peace with himself be such a workaholic, spending time away from his family? Why didn’t he get a different job, one which enabled him to be with his children in the evenings, to help us with our homework, to have peaceful, simple nights of domestic happiness? Why the incessant work, work, work? And why, when he was with my grandmother and the extended family, did he disappear into reading the newspaper, letting my grandmother and his siblings dominate the conversations? There was a cultivated detachment he had in extended family settings with his family – as if being too much himself, to let out his deepest voice, would disrupt the harmony of the family.

It was a subtle situation. To assert his identity fully would be to affirm the older, patriarchal structures in which his mother would have to submit to him. His mother had already spent her life submitting to her parents and then her husband – and naturally her children, including my father, who saw her struggles wanted her now to have an independence and freedom previously unavailable to her. But to be explicit in giving up his dominant role as the eldest son would be to make himself a martyr and so make it seem as if his mother is beholden to his kindness.

What was needed was a double play: an affirmation of his traditional eldest son role, even as he was pulling from that traditional role so that my grandmother can play that role instead. In a society in which the eldest son takes over the family when his father passes away, my father had to be the eldest son and yet also not be the eldest son. He had to do his dharma as the oldest son, even as he saw that dharma in a modern perspective.

I think the way my father, psychologically, managed this double play was to conflate it with another double play central to the Advaita tradition in Indian philosophy: between the illusory world of roles and normal identities and the true world of Brahman the Universal Consciousness. He now believed that his philosophical growth was not tied to becoming a monk – in which he would give up his normal identities explicitly – but to philosophically being in the world of everyday realities. No longer would he need to give up his normal identities, such as being a son or a husband or a father. Instead, he would affirm those identities in the midst of the world and yet stay detached from them in the inner, higher realms of his consciousness.

Later in life he came to see the monk path as a cop out. As the easy way out. Where one, as he put it, “ran away from the world” in order to not be bound to it. He contrasted this with the householder as the philosopher: someone who simultaneously both affirms the normal identities and also detaches from those identities in his deeper mind. This detachment isn’t the normal detachment of resignation or alienation – for to be resigned would mean not really affirming the normal identities. No, the true philosophical act would be to assert the radical contradiction of I am entirely of this world and I am yet entirely not of this world. It is to walk that razor’s edge of consciousness of being in the world and yet not being of the world.

Stated in the abstract, this double consciousness can seem unproblematic – in fact, I think it is deeply right. And indeed, I think after fifteen years of marriage and after moving to America, my father got better at balancing the two sides. But my sense is that while in India, he struggled with this balance, and as a result escaped into his work to let out in public with his friends the embers of his philosophical fires which he had to suppress in extended family settings at home. And it was that focus on work, and the social life of that work, which affected his health.

My father never talked about any of this tension between his son identity and his philosopher identity. Of course, he didn’t. Because central to his narrative was that there was no tension between these two identities – in his mind, they were so seamlessly integrated and also compartmentalized that there was no issue of a clash, no unresolved issue to be dealt with.

*****

But as a son I could feel the tension was unresolved for him. And it became more and more apparent as I started to feel a tension between my son identity and my philosopher identity. When I tried to talk to my father about this tension in my life, he didn’t seem to know how to respond and even to really understand what I was talking about. It took me years to realize that he couldn’t help me because he hadn’t consciously resolved the issue in his own life – he had simply repressed it and moved on.

As I discovered philosophy, I initially assumed there could be no tension between my son identity and my philosopher identity. After all, it was my very father who introduced me to philosophy. And as a senior in high school, the only public identity I knew for being a philosopher was a monk – and so I started to discuss with my father the possibility of my exploring that path.

I imagined that he would respond with pride that his son loved philosophy as much as he did, and that he wanted to make that his life’s calling. Even if he thought that is not the best path, I thought he would understand why I was drawn to the path of pursuing philosophy publicly.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. My father was incensed at any talk of the monk life. He said it was a way of running away from life; that it was archaic and old fashioned; that it misunderstood the true nature of philosophy, which was not about external identity but about inner detachment.

These were all points I could understand and even appreciate. But what I couldn’t understand was why he seemed so angry about it, and so disappointed in me for even taking it seriously. He started to suggest that my desire for being a monk was a sign of my attachment to social identities, and so was a sign of my not being really philosophical.

He was right that for me philosophy was inseparable from my social identity. After all, thinking about philosophy helped me think about how I could relate to my family and friends, to India and America, to the ancient and the modern worlds. In my external social world I saw everywhere dichotomies and tensions, confusions and seemingly irreconcilable divisions – and thinking of myself as a philosopher gave me a feeling of wholeness, unity and peace, and a sense of armor I could wear through the external world of divisions.

Did I really want to be a monk? Not really. I had no idea what a monk life involved. It was mainly a place holder for a public identity as a philosopher. One which was soon replaced as I discovered in college the public identity of a philosophy professor.

When I told my father I was going to major in philosophy, he had all the usual concerns of parents: what will I do with it, and what kind of job could I get? But beyond these practical objections, he constantly levied the philosophical objection that by seeking a public identity as a philosopher, I was turning away from the deeper philosophical truths in the name of surface recognition.

The force of his objections always seemed to me disproportionate to the situation. Why was he so adamant that seeking a philosophical identity in the broader world was a mistake? I came to see many years later it was because it is what he told himself when he gave up the monk path to be a family man. It is how he reconciled his dharma as a son with his dharma as a philosopher – by saying that the philosopher is the one, like Arjuna in the Gita, who does his family dharma without attachment. I think my father told himself that if he became a monk, he was being attached to the social identity of a philosopher, which meant he was not being detached enough.

My father would have been consistent if he didn’t take on the role of being my guru and introducing me to philosophy. If he didn’t talk philosophy even with his nuclear family, that would have shown that he had completely detached himself from every social identity, and was being true to his conception of philosophy. But by talking to me about philosophy – and indeed by wanting to pass on his philosophical worldview and insights to me – he was blurring the boundaries of everyday identities and philosophy in the very way he was warning me not to do.

But, all told, I am glad that he opened to about his philosophy to his wife and children at least. For while some people might be so quietist and Tao like that philosophically they dissolve entirely into their everyday identities, I think my father was not temperamentally such a person. In this, he and I are similar.

Over time, the tension between my father and me increased, but then later on came to our own peace. For him our philosophy conversations were part of an inner world entirely set apart from the everyday identities we had – in which roles such as parent, child, husband, philosophy major and so on were set aside. But for me our conversations were very much a part of the everyday world in which I was talking to my father, while navigating my philosophy education at the university, in a society coming to grips with its social and philosophical troubles. For many years I was convinced that my father might be right that in a deep way I was wrong. Insofar as I thought my father as my guru and so saw him as my better self, I felt I was failing him and also thereby failing myself. But ultimately I couldn’t accept his path as if it were my path as well. I had to follow my own path.

When later in his life my father started talking philosophy with the extended family, I was relieved. I saw it as him finally breaking out of the self-imposed restrictions he had placed on himself when his father passed away, and where he could express himself fully. When he worked on the talks he would give to the family and when turning those talks into a book, he threw himself into it with a passion and a zeal which to me seemed like a spring which had been kept pushed down bouncing out with pent up force.

When he imagined that his life path would work for me because he thought I was an extension of him – and when I accepted that and assumed I was an extension of him – there was pain and abuse. But over time he and I came to be at peace with each other, able to appreciate what we had in common and also appreciate our differences. By not forcing myself into his mold, I was able to step into my own life and thereby appreciate the particular contours of our lives.

For many years I was afraid that if I didn’t see my father as my perfect guru, I would lose him as a father and a guru, and would myself become lost in the process. But actually when freed of the assumption that I was supposed to be a copy of him, I was able to appreciate him as a father and a guru in a new, less stressful light, even as I continued my own, unique path.

3 thoughts on “Spiritual Abuse”

  1. I’m sure that your father felt that he loved you very much, but sometimes the love that parents feel for their children does not contribute to their flourishing.

    The feminist movement has taught us to see that love can at times have negative effects on the loved person if that loves does not take that person’s needs and aspirations into account. That’s the story of Ibsen’s Doll House, isn’t it?

    As I’m sure you know, love is a discipline, not a feeling and loving each person is a learning process, with lots of trial and error, not something given in advance. Erich Fromm’s book, the Art of Loving, is fairly good about that process.

    Since you openly and publicly criticize you father above, I feel free to also criticize him. Otherwise, I would not do so out of respect for your special relationship with him.

    By the way, above I’m sure that you mean riding his motorbike home at 1 AM, not 1 PM.

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    1. I understand about your respecting my relationship with my father. Thank you. No problem with you criticizing him, as that is what I wrote.

      I like your phrase that “love is a discipline” and also the reference to the book “The Art of Loving”. This gets to the root of my argument with him. My father had a kind of parallel track conception of his family role vs his philosophical side – the two were compartmentalized for him. He did very much work on his love for me as a father: he tried to change, tried to listen to my needs and to give me space and freedom. But I think this was in the domain of the family role as father. In the context of our philosophical discussions and his role as a guru and philosophical teacher, he was much less flexible and more one-sided. He took two roles that he was familiar with – the father role and the guru role – and sort of layered them on top of each other, and without connecting them to each other.

      The cause for this was his own compartmentalizing his son identity and his philosopher identity – there was no way my grandmother could understand his philosophical side, and as he didn’t want to challenge her in the family and cause her pain, he segregated the son and philosopher identities. When I came of age and starting showing interest in philosophy, he imported his way of balancing the son and philosopher identities onto me – while ignoring the obvious reality that for me my son and philosopher identities were by necessity more closing linked.

      I admired his desire to integrate philosophy into family life, and to say that one didn’t need to be a monk or a professor. But as I saw it, this integration has to change both the mode of being a father and also the mode of teaching or discussing philosophy; we can’t just take older models, while segregating them.

      Just like many academic philosophers would not see a book like “The Art of Loving” as philosophy, so too my father would not recognize it as philosophy. I differ from both in seeing it as very much philosophy. When my father wanted to talk philosophy with me and pass on what he thought was important, he should have kept in mind how that philosophical exchange interconnected with the fatherly love. To integrate philosophy into the family life as he was doing with me requires more self-consciousness about what kind of conversations and modes of listening to each other are conducive to such interactions, and how we have to rethink family and societal roles.

      Thanks re the typo. I changed it.

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  2. I googled Fromm and according to Wikipedia, before studying psychoanalysis, he got a doctorate in sociology and studied with Karl Jaspers, who of course is recognized as a major philosopher in the continental tradition. Wikipedia describes him as a “humanistic philosopher”.

    The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Fromm as a “psychoanalyst and philosopher”.
    https://www.britannica.com/biography/Erich-Fromm

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