How can we understand the psychology of spiritual groups?

Practice in a group can be a powerful tool  for transformation.

To answer this question, we must understand group psychology and the unique challenges of the spiritual path.

Also key is an understanding of the IDR cycle.  Slowly, we must learn to move from idealization of ourselves and our teachers to spiritual maturity.


A unique characteristic of spiritual groups is that they may be able to reach us on the deepest levels, the level of what some people call “essence,” or being.

Reaching these deep levels does not, however, make one’s psychological issues disappear.  In fact, it may intensify our experience of them.

This is because, as the Theory of Holes theorizes, the world of “ego” and the world of being exist simultaneously. As a result, we may feel our “holes” (areas of deficiency) even more strongly precisely because we are becoming more awake.

Thus, as a spiritual practitioner, we begin to live in two realms at once. This can make us particularly vulnerable.


Similarly, a spiritual leader is both a human being who can reach us on a deep level, but also a person with their own work to do.  When their “issues” meet our “issues” it can be particularly painful or confusing.

By Wonderlane - Flickr: HE Sogyal Rinpoche arrives to speak about Buddhism, Seattle, Washington, USA, CC BY 2.0,
A  spiritual teacher may present powerful teachings to others without being able to resist the temptations of power.

EXAMPLE: Annie’s spiritual teacher sometimes asked, subtly or unsubtly, that students be available for sex.  One evening, he started to advance toward Annie in order to touch her and test her availability.  Annie “froze” in position to avoid the come-on.  When the danger was over, Annie said she “returned to the more familiar state of a slightly shattered and confused human being.”1

Ordinarily, in this group, one was supposed to stay in touch and present in the moment.  Sensing the body was one of their practices. Annie’s freeze was an act of survival but also an act in opposition to the key teachings she was studying.

It might be easy to conclude that Annie’s teacher was just a fraud.  But the case is not necessarily that simple.  Annie’s teacher was Georges Gurdjieff, often regarded as one of the most seminal, if very controversial spiritual teachers of our time.

In Annie’s case the conduct was egregious. However, when the conduct is less extreme, it can be even more confusing for the student.


In some traditions, particularly monastic paths that  believe there is no self, self (or ego)-abnegation is considered a legitimate part of the spiritual path.  However, self-abnegation is extremely dangerous in an unsafe situation or unsafe group.

By Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Self-abnegation must be practiced in a safe environment.

Even relatively benign large groups tend to put pressure on the stability of an individual’s sense of self which can compound the difficulty.  When this is coupled with self-abnegation, it can lead to confusion about when, if ever, it is right to defend the self.

Surrender at the wrong time and to the wrong people is dangerous and traumatizing.


My experience is that one’s relationship to a spiritual group  often parallels what I have called the “IDR cycle.”2

The IDR cycle is the cycle of inflation (idealization), followed by deflation and hopefully realistic resolution that often occurs when we face challenges or conflicts.3


In spiritual groups, the IDR cycle works as follows.

Idealization Stage

Often, in the beginning of committed spiritual practice, there is a sense of inspiration, meaning, and excitement.

However this also often coincides with what some have called an “idealizing transference,” in which we view our teachers or our group in an excessively positive, highly unrealistic way. 4

The more destructive the group, the more it will actually encourage the idealizing transference in its most distorted form. The teacher will claim special powers; the group will claim to be unique and unparalleled in history.  Ironically, this hype is actually an invitation or cover-up for bad behavior.

PRACTICE TIP: When idealization is coupled with a teacher’s bad behavior, the student who has had a difficult childhood may experience it as a re-enactment of abuse.  This compounds the confusion for the student and makes him or her even more susceptible to being victimized.  It is also doubly painful if one ends up relating to one’s teacher on both the level of being or essence and the level of abuse.

Deflation stage

When we grow sufficiently to the point that the spiritual practice and the spiritual group becomes more real to us, we also come face to face with (1) the difficulty of maintaining the practice, as discussed here,  and (2) the group’s ‘holes” and unconscious elements.

At this level, we begin to consider whether the group, even with its “holes,” (or deficiencies) is a good fit for our needs.  We begin to accept that it is not necessary or perhaps even advisable for the group to be “perfect.” This is the disappointment or deflationary aspect of the IDR cycle.  It is a stage of humility.

PRACTICE TIP: CULT TERRITORY: The refusal to deflate at all is the terrain of the cult  —  the mindless destructive refusal to see the downsides of a situation and ourselves.

Realistic Resolution

Ideally, by working through the deflationary stage we are able finally to land in a place of realistic resolution. We let go of excessively idealized and unrealistic expectations.  We begin to “own” our own spiritual practice, and what we have learned from our teachers.  But we allow our peers and teachers to be human, not perfect, just like us.

The developmental goal for a spiritual practitioner in this stage is to try to own the Work one has been taught, to sort out idealization from reality and to continue on.

New Possibilities

During realistic resolution, we may now be able to compassionately but objectively point to the “holes” or deficiencies that need to be addressed by the group, and even to offer insights on how to move forward.  Or we may objectively assess that this particular group does not serve us anymore, and move on to find other options.


In summary, spiritual practice helps us become more sensitive and aware but can also make us more vulnerable and open.  This can be dangerous, especially if we have dropped our defenses with a spiritual leader or group.

The degree to which superiority, not humility, is the rationale for a spiritual group’s existence is an indicator of an idealizing transference which is crystallized, rigid and unrealistic — even dangerous. At the beginning of the path, idealized views of ourselves and others are natural, but they must give way to realistic expectations, commitment and discipline.

In short, spiritual humility brings spiritual adulthood. It enables us to commit to our work, and to live in the world openly, but not naively.  That, ultimately, is what we seek.

Photo Credits (With Gratitude)
Whirling Dervishes, Rumi Fest, By diaz (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Shinto Priest at Dazaifu Tenmagu Shrine: By Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Picture of Sogyal Rinpoche: By Wonderlane [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons



  1. See A. L. Staveley,  Memories of Gurdjieff, Two Rivers Press (Aurora, Oregon 1978).
  2. See Bader, The Psychology of Mediation: Issues of Self and Identity and the IDR Cycle, 10(2) Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal 183 (2010) and Bader, The Psychology and Neurobiology of Mediation, 17(2) Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution 363 (Winter 2106).
  3. For an excellent discussion of the IDR cycle, see the materials published in Europe by the TIME project, a project dedicated to training intercultural mediators.
  4.  A. H. Almaas has spoken eloquently of the idealizing transference in spiritual practice, emphasizing that narcissistic elements in one’s relationship to one’s teacher surface at certain points on the path.

    “The student who is dealing with narcissism tends to relate to his teacher and to significant others in his life like a child does when it is developmentally normal to need an idealized self-object. . .  The student believes, at least unconsciously but often consciously, that his teacher possesses perfection and greatness. This perception is based not on reality but on his own narcissistic needs. He does not question this image of his teacher, believing it to be true, and feels blessed and fortunate to have such an extraordinary teacher.”  A. H. Almaas, The Point of Existence, p. 232.