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A path out of abuse – lessons from Tina Turner and her Buddhist faith

“People around the world have gleaned solace and comfort from Tina’s story, and many have subsequently found the huge burst of courage it takes to say that enough is enough”

Tina Turner, the legendary rock star with an iconic gravelly voice and lyrics which stick in your head, credited her Buddhist faith with giving her the physical and emotional strength to leave her abusive husband, Ike.

People around the world have gleaned solace and comfort from her story, and many have subsequently found the huge burst of courage it takes to say that enough is enough.

“She was my strength when I left my abuser,” former journalist Laura Keeney wrote while tweeting a Turner obituary, “and she introduced me to Buddhism as a balm for my soul.”

Abuse may not be obvious

Being in an abusive marriage or relationship eats you up from the inside out. It’s not just impoverished, uneducated victims who find themselves in the grip of an abusive partner. So often, it’s smart, previously upbeat and strong individuals with a relationship that looks solid from the outside who are suffering desperately behind closed doors.

Ike and Tina were spellbinding together when on stage. Their relationship looked amazing from the outside. The abuser can be the most charismatic of hosts in the home when the door opens to guests, and a monster behind closed doors once the guests leave and they turn their charm off like a light switch.

Abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional or financial, or a combination of any of these.

The abuser is often so controlling that their victim is too scared to leave or to call out their behaviour. Often it seems easier to just stay silent and hope for a better future.

The constant put-downs, gaslighting, insults and rage attacks can make the victim feel weak and terrified, especially when there are children involved. And this is why the cycle of abuse, terror and loneliness continues: because the victim is trying to make it OK for them or for their children. They are scared to tell anyone because the abuser will punish them even more.

“I was afraid to put it out [talk about the abuse] because of what I would get from Ike,” Tina told journalist Carl Arrington. Ike Turner denied he had abused Tina even though he freely admitted that he would “slap her about if she was sad”.

Sometimes the perpetrator is adamant that they are not abusive, often to the extent that they will go on a campaign of winning the hearts and minds of anyone who will agree with them that their actions aren’t defined as actual abuse.

If you’re a seasoned abuser, you can easily become so good at reinventing your private and past self to others that you start to believe your own lies. When this happens, even the abuser suffers because they can’t see themselves for the person they are. Ike claimed that slapping someone for being sad was not abusive.

So, when it becomes public that someone is abusive, the gaslighting continues because the victim gets further abuse for using the word “abuse”.  A common defence from the abuser is to tell their victim that they’re losing their mind. It’s called gaslighting and it is the narcissist’s favourite tool.

Gaining strength from Buddhism

Tina Turner is not the only woman to gain enough strength from Buddhism to leave her violent husband.

Meditation helps us to gain focus when we’re reeling from yet another shouting match (which is an ironic phrase because “match” indicates that the shouting is back and forth, and usually it’s completely one-sided).

When we learn to clear our rollercoaster mind, we can see more clearly what we’re enduring

When we learn to clear our rollercoaster mind, we can see more clearly what we’re enduring. Once the fog has cleared, we need to begin the process of forgiving ourselves for getting into this situation. By being self-compassionate, we may be experiencing compassion for the first time.

Tina Turner was introduced to Valerie Bishop, who practised Nichiren Buddhism, by her ex-husband and abuser Ike. Nichiren Buddhists often chant “nam-myoho-renge-kyo” which expresses devotion to the laws of cause and effect. This chanting can be calming for the mind when in turmoil.

She chanted and practised meditation right up until her death in May, and many times said that it was her faith that gave her the courage to save herself from Ike. Not only did she send him packing, but since that day her strength grew and flourished in an exponential way through positive psychology, and her story empowered so many people to also say, “I can have a better life than this” and to leave their monsters.

In Daniel Lindsay and T J Martin’s 2021 documentary Tina, the singer said she was so nervous about doing the interview where she would describe the abuse she had suffered that she asked her psychic if it would ruin her career.

The singer recalled, “She [the psychic] said, ‘No, Tina, it’s going to do just the opposite. It’s going to break everything wide open.’”

And it gained her the added adulation of many tens of thousands of people suffering domestic abuse.

Abuse of another person is wrong. No two ways about it. Abusing someone and not admitting that it’s abuse is narcissistic. Telling a victim that you didn’t abuse them when you did is gaslighting and abusive.

These days it’s even more appropriate to call this behaviour out in the public domain. Children know it’s wrong and they are insightful enough to know what’s abusive and what’s not.

But there will always be what’s called “victim blaming”, where people under the influence of the charismatic abuser tell the victim that somehow it’s their fault their partner became abusive. And the perpetrator claims they can’t help beating, shouting or cheating on the victim because “they made me do it” or some other phrase that they feel makes them blameless. Hard to believe, I know.

Buddhism teaches us to look at the present rather than rehashing the past or getting preoccupied with the future. Only through focusing with pinpoint concentration on your present reality can you assess what’s happening and where you are.

But it’s so hard and sometimes impossible to use breathing or body scan techniques to calm the mind to bring us into our present. While in the foggy world of domestic abuse, our minds are all over the place, in survival mode.

When in turmoil because of abuse, sometimes chanting is the only way to still the mind. Alcohol only numbs it temporarily. Tina used chanting. Repetitive and melodic, it is soothing and possible.

With a clear mind, getting rid of the abuser becomes something very feasible. It’s like looking down on your life from above and it becomes crystal clear what’s happening and what needs to be done. It’s easier than you think.

With a clear mind, getting rid of the abuser becomes something very feasible. It’s like looking down on your life from above and it becomes crystal clear what’s happening

Once liberated, instead of looking backward, you can experience the delightful feeling of freedom in every fibre of your being, and done daily, that brings even more strength and creates a life well lived.

“I was living a life of death. I didn’t exist,” she said. “But I survived it. And when I walked out, I walked. And I didn’t look back.”