It’s not consent if you’re afraid to say no.
After my abrupt return home in July 2019, I haven’t been able to share the truth about what happened. I do so now, in hopes that it may raise awareness of the dangers of spiritual abuse and cultic thought reform.
Abuse ignored is abuse perpetuated, and I will not remain silenced.
This photo was taken the night before I was trafficked* to a foreign country by, for want of a better word, a cult.
I wasn’t kidnapped; I was deceived and coerced.
I wasn’t held captive in a dark chamber, physically tormented or malnourished.
I was held captive in my heart and mind, psychologically traumatised, stripped of my sovereignty and starved of my ability to critically reason.
This photo captures nothing of the inner state of deep shame and paralysing anxiety that conceals itself behind that smile.
I was forced to lie to everybody in my life, to fabricate a story about a non-existent retreat in a country I had no intention of travelling to.
Flight details, dates, reasons for not being contactable via phone, email, or otherwise.
Caught up in a web of lies I had no desire to be in. Heading to a place that in reality, I didn’t want to go.
But it was the only path I had to follow.
It was God’s will, I had no choice.
Of course, there’s always a choice.
We always have a choice.
I just couldn’t see that.
I couldn’t see because I was brainwashed; Groomed via an intricate and meticulously orchestrated process of psychological manipulation over a period of 18 months.
The breaking point came after I was held in a house for 8 days, with no television, no radio, no phone, and no internet, so that I could be psychologically abused and subjected to intense manipulation and coercion tactics, predominately by women who were genuinely acting in good faith.
I can’t tell you where that house was, because I was instructed to wear sunglasses with duct tape on the inside and a bucket hat pulled down over my eyes when transported there.
I had every piece of my belongings scrupulously searched and every electrical item confiscated… Just to be sure I made no unauthorised contact with the outside world, or attempt to steal or share any of the ‘secret ancient teachings’ that I was so blessed to receive. I guess also to prevent me from picking up my belongings and walking out the door without looking back.
Phone calls to parents were permitted once a week, via their own phone, from their car, monitored. If you made any reference to the terminology related to yoga or meditation, your call would be cut… under those conditions, it was much safer simply to opt out of the phone call altogether.
I was instructed (not invited) to stand naked while my photos and videos were taken.
I was told, down to the minute, exactly when I was (and was not) allowed to sleep.
I was forced to watch misogynistic porn, along with other extremely confronting and explicit videos that I wish I could erase from my memory.
The kind of videos where the other girls smile and nod sympathetically, saying “ahh yes, this one was very challenging…”
But I was frequently reassured I was doing everything of my own free will, and would NEVER be forced to do anything I didn’t want to do.
I was in a space where Karma Yoga was twisted out of its original context to be used as a punishment for undesirable behaviour.
Where women would come and go at all hours of the day and night, and you never knew if, and when, you might be summoned next.
where followers were publicly shamed and who shaved their heads under the direction of their guru as punishment for “abhorrent behaviour”
Where any attempt to speak out about concerns or air grievances was considered “calumny” “defamation,” “satanic” and betrayal of the master.
It was assured that leaving or deviating from this “authentic spiritual path” ensured a destiny of spiritual regression, falling into the hellish grips of insidious demonic doubts… only a fake spiritual path and a fake leader was available to the souls who dared leave.
I felt completely powerless and a jarring sense of separation from society as I was forced to sit in the background of a dilapidated Internet cafe while a woman punched in the keys of my password to log in to my emails. I was not allowed to assist her.
I learned the hard way that sexual violence is rife all around us, permeating itself particularly within spiritual communities; not even the benevolently inspired are spared the risk of hijack by the ego, and just because someone studies, writes about and disseminates perfectly authentic and powerful teachings about religion, spirituality, yoga, tantra, and meditation (perhaps even in good faith, initially)… does not necessarily mean that they themselves embody all of the qualities of an enlightened master, completely transcendent of their ego and without any predatory desires, whether emotional, financial, spiritual or sexual in nature.
And just because such beings are utilising absolute authority over their followers to exploit their human rights and engage in harmful behaviours and dialogue to the detriment of their wellbeing, does not mean that they (or their enablers) necessarily realise that they are doing so.
I had to mentally battle my way out over several days, resulting afterwards in nothing short of a breakdown.
I still find it hard to reconcile the memory of being alone in a foreign country, collapsed and hyperventilating on the floor of a budget hotel room, overlooking a graveyard.
What was the meaning of this?
The death of innocence?
I sat under one of the world’s most famous landmarks, too scared to take a photo.
Nobody knew where I was and I couldn’t tell them; I was sworn to secrecy and I was terrified of the consequences of breaking those vows.
I wasn’t expected home for over a month, with planned travel to camps and retreats associated with the very cult I had just fled.
I paced the streets for a day, watching the world around me with cynicism, distrust, repulsion and fear.
They say nobody joins a cult… And I certainly never intended to join a syncretic sect.
I could feel my mind swinging like a pendulum between ‘me’ and ‘brainwashed me’
‘Stay lucid Ashleigh.
How did signing up for a yoga class lead to THIS?!
Is this even real?
YOU LIE AGAIN!
What is real? What is reality?
Maybe this is all just a bad dream?
Is this what psychosis feels like?
You made the right decision, you had to get out
Perverted!Or is that just the demons manipulating me, like he said?
You ran away out of fear, you Stupid girl!
Should I go back?
MANIPULATED BY DEMONS!
Now your life is destined for suffering.Stubborn!
NO! Don’t let him get in your head! It was all lies!
NO! You are the liar. You live a lie, that’s what he said.
NO! You got yourself caught up in a cult, you STUPID girl!
Oh God I can’t breathe.
Make it stop. Make it stop. Make it STOP’
After returning to my room and dropping a small fortune on the next available flight, I was home within 48 hours, surprising my ecstatic family.
“Where did I fly from? Which airline?” I deflected questions from every angle while I tried to placate the intense and fiery grip of anxiety in my heart.
‘Smile. Be jolly.
Shove your secrets down your throat.
Nobody needs to hear that.’
I had felt like I had reality ripped out from underneath me.
I felt so trapped in my inability and fear to speak my truth that I had the physical sensation of my tongue being tied to the back of my throat.
I would send myself home from work just to have a safe space to keel over and violently cry.
I was literally choking on my tears.
And still I stayed silent…
I was convinced something awful would happen to me if I dared speak the truth.
This is my story, the way I experienced it, the way I felt, the thoughts I had, the actions I took, the reactions I observed in myself. Capturing only the surface of a much deeper and convoluted ‘story’ …this is my truth.
But of course, the truth has many faces.
…Because perhaps the Master was right? Maybe I really am a stupid, superficial, shifty and fluctuating woman, with a BIG EGO and a great BAD WILL!! (red capitals, double underline, forever burnt into my retinas).
For all the ‘love’ he manifested towards me, perhaps my response of denying the surrender of my body to him and instead begging for compassion and guidance through the yogic postures and meditation techniques (that, with diligent practice and aspiration, promised my liberation) really was “bizarre, morbid, sickly, perverted, completely lacking any aspiration to know God or any sympathy or good will.”
Maybe when he asks us to disclose our level of desire to “make love” with him on a scale between 100% – 500%, it leaves ample room for us express a complete lack thereof.
Perhaps he was right when he told me I am the only one to respond in such a bizarre way because I am “manipulated by demons” that don’t want me to receive divine power.
Maybe he was telling me the truth when he said he would exorcise them by “making love“ with me, despite the fact that I repeatedly indicated I didn’t want to.
Maybe I really am “full of larvarity” (not a real word, by the way. But I assume relates to ‘larval’ ‘larvae’ or ‘maggots’) and “destined for a life of suffering and negative karma” due to saying no to surrendering my body to him.
Maybe he really would have blessed me with breath-taking beauty, a bigger bust, charisma, and divine power that I will never ever again have the chance to receive.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been alarmed by that disturbing observation of women’s most sacred and intimate parts being prodded and poked in some form of inspection process, for reasons that are still unclear to me..
That I should’ve ignored the burning fear in my stomach.
And with regard to the sweet soul who gently encouraged me to do as she did, to surrender my doubts and trust him….
Maybe pressuring that reluctant, naked, vulnerable young lady more than 40 years his junior (who has already been forced to lie about her whereabouts to her boyfriend with whom she is in a long term, monogamous relationship) to “make love” with him, is ok, despite what Western Society says.
Maybe it’s just her ego preventing her from seeing that when she sobs in front of him, asserting that no, she doesn’t want to, it doesn’t really mean no.
And maybe, when she returns to him out of the manipulation instilled in her, and expresses again through tears that she doesn’t want to ‘do it again,’ it really was in her best interests to wear her down until she ‘consented.’
Maybe it had nothing to do with the high and potent dose of “aphrodisiac” she was given, the contents of which remain a mystery.
Maybe such a substance, combined with her sleep deprivation had no influence on her ability to critically reason.
Maybe it wouldn’t bring her world crashing down around her if she admitted to herself the hurtful truth that she had not received the world at her feet, as promised, she was not truly happy and that she was in fact abused.
Maybe it’s ok that there are women out there in the world, who as a direct result of their experiences with that man, are unable to work a full time job due to the effects of post traumatic stress disorder.
Maybe I could stop being triggered by specific songs, gestures and words if I just dropped the victim mentality.
Maybe then, the nightmares would stop.
Maybe the testimonial videos that I was forced to watch, by women who were forced to make them, really were genuine and made wilfully.
And maybe it was truly in their best interests, forcing them to read, naked and vulnerable in front of a camera, statements that if they ever forgot the amazing and beautiful states they had during their sexual encounters with this man… they were a “stupid, superficial, shifty and fluctuating woman and should watch this recording again in order to remember.”
Maybe following a spiritual path really should involve signing declarations that I accept the punishments of shaving my head for 5 years and handing over all of my belongings as compensation without going to the police, if I was to be caught trying to steal any of their secret ancient teachings.
Maybe an enlightened master really should encourage women to stick notes on walls stating what punishments they agree to if they don’t deal with the fat on their belly, or “become normal and open up erotically like everybody else.”
Maybe forcing us to copy word for word, in our own handwriting, four page declarations including statements such as “I was not raped” “I was not trafficked” “I was not psychologically manipulated” “I was not abused” and “I write this statement of my own free will, being of sound mind and body” meant that for each and every one of us who walked through those doors, those statements were true.
And maybe threatening us with perjury and penal consequences should we say anything contrary to that statement is not an insurance measure to silence victims and protect the beloved guru.
Maybe forcing me to read mine on camera before releasing me back into society, and forcing us to take vows of secrecy on our own health and spiritual evolution doesn’t bind us in a knot of isolating silence wrapped in fear.
Maybe it doesn’t rob us of our right to speak out against abuse by creating the illusion of safety only through suffering in silence.
Maybe I actually have sent my own health and spiritual evolution up the creek in doing so.
Maybe I really have succumbed to evil and spiritual regression by leaving a path I never really felt I chose.
Maybe I really could have been bought with the free plane ticket, the red rose, some blocks of chocolate, cheap perfume, a small sum of cash, and biscuits he had ‘gifted’ me.
Perhaps he truly is a spiritual master, rather than a literary one, who has mastered the art of coercion through use of false dichotomy and almost every logical fallacy in existence.
Maybe, as any devotee would be quick to tell me, it is just my ego preventing me from seeing his grace…
Maybe I was wrong about the whole thing.
I remind myself that in this realm of material existence, we are immersed in opportunities for learning, and a pathological guru encounter has potential to serve some level of a teaching function, if only a fraction of an encounter with an authentic one.
People learn through pain, however this does not mean it’s ok to intentionally (or even unintentionally) subject people to pain and trauma under the premise that it’s for their own benefit.
Yes, teachers sometimes engage in questionable ways of triggering people’s egos in order to help them transcend them, but not in ways that benefit their own position of power, authority or sexual gratification.
And not in ways that are harmful to their follower’s well being and sense of safety.
In the wake of this experience, a healing process was born. Truthfully, I have much to be grateful for. I am truly more joyful and at peace with myself than I ever was during those 18 months. Gratitude is the final piece of this process, after all, without first experiencing darkness, how could I ever embrace the light?
“trafficking in persons” was internationally defined in 2000 as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.” (Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish the trafficking in Persons, especially women and children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, 2000)