When Our Teachers Fall. ~ James MacAdam

Via elephant journal
on Mar 28, 2012
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Photo: GilbertoFilho

John Friend, Genpo Roshi, Katagiri Roshi, Swami Muktananda, Adi Da.

These are all teachers that I or my teachers have studied with, and who have been involved in scandals involving sex, money and power.

These teachers have all wielded tremendous influence in spirituality in the West. Through their transgressions they have left many of their students a legacy of confusion, cynicism and despair. They have also allowed society’s skeptics, cynics and materialists to puff with self-righteousness as they tear down the silly spiritualists, the guru cults and the spiritual endeavor itself.

As a personality type, each of these teachers shares a particular quality: profound, unflappable self-confidence.

This quality appears to have predated their respective moments of spiritual realization (which are certainly not equal), and to have been part of their inherent nature as humans. They are the kind of people who could have (or did) succeed “in the world,” competing as world-class athletes, building successful multi-national businesses, or becoming globally renowned polymathic intellectuals or artists, but/and chose to bring their gifts into the psychologically, ethically fraught world of Western spirituality.

In this spiritual world, they are the fierce practitioners and realizers that many of us have aspired to be. I have always assumed that it was their unique hubris that propelled them through the long hours of practice, the grueling dark nights of the soul, the moments of self-confronting crisis that seem to be necessary for spiritual breakthrough.

That same hubris apparently allowed each to develop enormous psychological blind spots, gaping holes large enough to facilitate moral self-contradictions of confounding magnitude.

These teachers have each embodied exceptional self-confidence, charisma, and had access to gushing currents of subtle energy and transformative spiritual insight. Their western students have commonly been possessed of some level of postmodern angst and self-doubt, aching spiritual hunger, access to abundant material resources, lots of book smarts, and familial and cultural histories of deep sexual repression. To bring these forces together in the crucible of authentic spiritual practice created a recipe not only for profound opening and transformation, but for abuse, manipulation, and bitter disappointment for both teachers and students.

What’s a spiritual student to do?

It’s all been hashed out a million times: we can use the opportunity to wrestle with our own daddy issues, we can take more responsibility for our own paths, we can create a sangha that will take on the function of the Buddha. It’s all true, and blah, blah, blah.

The one thing I can say with reasonable certainty is that the world, and my life, is better off because of each of these men. I, too, participated in the small, blissful yoga workshops with John Friend at a retreat center atop the spine of a Utah mountain range.

One moment stands out: I stood in padangusthasana, one foot outstretched in front of me. John stepped in front, held my foot, looked me in the eye, and asked, “James, have I ever let you down?” The answer was no, of course not. Though I’d met him a scant two years earlier, he’d helped me through physical challenges, opened my head and heart to experiences I never thought possible. He gave me a window into authentic spiritual life that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Even now, that John Friend never has let me down. The bright, committed, teacher-in-service continues to cleave to the light to this day. What I didn’t understand, and still find hard to swallow, is that there are many Johns, including some that are incredibly dark, irresponsible, unconscious, and would appear to act without conscience.

Genpo Roshi made a career out of, and invented an incredible practice based on working with the energy of shadow. I love Big Mind, and consider it a tremendous boon for my own spiritual development. Yet as the now-disrobed Dennis Merzel has shown us, even being a master in working with shadow cannot protect us from moral failure.

Adi Da Samraj, Swami Muktananda, Katagiri Roshi—how many hearts were broken open, how many beings awakened with the help of these men! How many confused, hurt, stupefied students did they leave in their wake?

We humans are so innocent, bumbling like infants in our crawls and steps toward the light of consciousness. It is only natural we would think there is a perfect parent-like person out there, someone who wouldn’t ever let us down, who has transformed their shadow into a free source of powerful, radiant love available for all—but especially for us personally.

It hurts so much when our much projected-upon teachers fall, sending us back into the muddling, painful confusion of our own unresolved relationships with sex, money, power, family, love, spirit.

Must great light always cast deep shadow? Can we hold the paradox of simultaneous human imperfection and spiritual perfection?

Can we assess a teacher on moral grounds established by civilization’s consensus, even when we know we must transcend that consensus?

Our rigid morals hold the fabric of civilization together, and yet they hold us back. Can we transcend conventional morals without capitulating to self-serving rationalization—the kind that leads to everything from adultery to genocide?

I appreciate more than ever Chogyam Trungpa’s approach: be honest. Drink, womanize, whatever—just tell us about it, so we can know what the hell we are getting into (or know that we have no idea what we are getting into).

Of course our projections are our own responsibility, but I appreciate a teacher that respects me enough to trust that I can handle some contradiction, some humanity, some weird sh*t.

In contemplating the path of my fallen teachers, I find that I just don’t know. I am thrown back into the mystery of it all, the open-ended not-knowing that is the natural culmination of any contemplation. I just don’t know, and I am so sad, and so grateful.


James MacAdam is a spiritual practitioner, teacher, author, and environmental activist.  Find him on facebook, twitter, and on his blog.




Editor: Brianna Bemel


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7 Responses to “When Our Teachers Fall. ~ James MacAdam”

  1. K. Rukoo says:

    dear James,

    Thank you for this honest writing about what you are going through as you adjust to ‘the fall of your teacher’. This kind of reflection occurring now on a large scale within this big Anusara yoga program – draws me closer to Anusara – not further away.

    My heart goes out to all of the Anusara practitioners who now “thrown back into the mystery of it all” as you so eloquently described. I had a similar experience with my teacher (of another yoga style). I have come to recognized this step of letting go of the guru model as key to my spiritual path. You hint to this necessity in your writing. So many spiritual traditions point to the changes occurring for humanity indicating the need to let go of this linear, top-down model and move toward the collective, community model.

    Anusara teachers could be important leaders in this change of conscious. Please take your time to heal from your disappointment – but do remember that your teacher did create an incredible structure to do good work. No other program is so thorough in its training. No other program is so consistent across time and space. No other yoga program (that I am aware of) has a language that recognizes that we can directly access the source as individuals, that we have the guru within. Thus, John Friend has created a structure that can survive without him as the lead. It is time to create a communally lead yoga program, and the Anusara teachers that I have met and worked with are perfect candidates to start this new way of leading.

    This is what I hope with grow out of this deep Anusara reflection. My heart is with you all.


  2. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Posted to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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  3. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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  4. ValCarruthers says:

    Thank you, James, for this cogent reminder that we don't necessarily want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The master teachers you mention—and that's the short list—were deft at playing give-and-take with their followers. (Btw as a longtime devotee of Gurumayi Chidvilasanada, I consider Baba Muktanada one of my spiritual masters). They could manipulate those "gushing currents of energy" to create their own maya, illusion. The real trick is for what I'd call the "wounded follower" to decide how much that is still of value they want to keep.

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

    Valerie Carruthers
    Please go and "Like" Elephant Spirituality on Facebook

  5. __MikeG__ says:

    It takes a minimum of 5 years of practice and study to get the lowest level of certification in Iyengar yoga. And most people take longer. And there are multiple levels of certification each taking multiple years to accomplish. And there is no mailing in a video for Iyengar certification. The applicant must takes tests and demonstrate teaching abilities in front of a board of judges. Fail a test and the certification is not awarded.

    So please, let's back of this bogus sentiment that Anusara has training and consistency like "no other".

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