Adyashanti once said, “If you want a perfect teacher, get a dead one.”
I take this to mean that all humans have flaws. If you want to protect your idealized version of beneficence, it is probably best to do it with someone who is no longer living, because then they cannot contradict your perception of them by actually being human, real, and yes, disappointing.
I have been close to several spiritual teachers and also have both friends and clients who have explored different ways of maturing consciousness—everything from mentors, to shamanism, to Buddhism, to “self-help,” to Ayahuasca, and even to blatant cults and predators. What I have found is that there is a lot of wisdom out there and there are also some whopping blind spots, and sometimes actual danger, in those who call themselves “teachers.”
When you discover that you are no longer sure whether you can trust your teacher it can be staggering. You may lose your mentor, friend and wisdom-holder, as well as your community, livelihood, home, dignity, sense of self and even your faith in goodness.
What I have found is that even an ounce of ego goes a long way when they are the ones in power.
I once worked for an influential and charismatic teacher who also yelled at, humiliated and discredited the very people who were supporting him. The first time I noticed this was early on. He scolded his staff of volunteers loudly and publicly because they failed to get the sound system correct, telling us that he had said things that night he had never said before but that it wasn’t recorded due to their error. He made it clear that a great teaching was now lost. I was stunned by his admonition, but what really struck me was that only seconds later, in his green room, he turned to me and said with perfect candor that he wasn’t actually worried about it at all—they just needed to be kept in line.
I realized then that he himself was aware that he was playing games with people and frankly being manipulative, all in the name of “the teachings.” I then began to see him doing it with some of his close staff and also with his students. I knew he would do it with me as well, and of course he did eventually. I wondered aloud to myself what I would do when he started treating me the way he treated everyone else. For a while I was “a star,” in his words. I was his insider, his confidant, and I will admit that for a time I loved it.
Predictably, I fell. Having my sense of self dependent on his perceptions, whether high or low, worked very well for him—even as I watched our working relationship careening toward its inevitable conclusion. Collusion was a key feature of how he kept his power, by anointing some while demonizing others, and then reversing course or demoting people whenever it suited him.
He told me that I would be a “senior teacher” by the next year and then withdrew it as soon as I surmounted the hurdles he had set for me, acting as though I had simply made it up. Finally, in a strangely poetic moment, he left me a vitriolic voicemail accusing me of not doing my job properly. Thinking that he had hung up, however, he accidentally let the phone keep recording as he shared with someone else in the room that he had just made it all up, once again, “because I needed to be kept in line.”
That was when I submitted my resignation.
Why did I stay so long, having seen the signs so early on? This is where it gets important, sordid and dicey.
The very teachings themselves—the heart of which can be true and liberating in my opinion—exhort us to question reality, question ourselves, and go beyond what we have taken to be the truth. In Buddhism, for example, there is beautiful saying, “Regard all dharma as dreams,”—and in this sense “dharma” means “truth,” or “reality.” This kind of radical deconstruction of our habitual mind-state is indeed necessary for genuine transformation, however it is also dangerously easy for a teacher to use it for personal gain or to justify the unresolved areas in himself.
In such a situation, you are further surrounded by people espousing the same teachings, perceptions and rhetoric. This adds to the spin and confusion inside you. Even the best of spiritual groups tend to become cultish, with their own particular phrases, insider understandings and separation from those outside the group. If every other person in the world suddenly swore that 1+1 was 5, even the most rational person might have a moment of questioning themselves.
Importantly, when this sort of manipulation and confusion arises in our own teacher, it is different than when it occurs in other areas of life. If a friend invites me somewhere and then doesn’t show up, I might be worried, angry or just back off for a while. The difference with a teacher is that they have so much influence, as they have become a trusted conduit for “the truth,” and even the most well adjusted among us can lose a sense of our own needs and boundaries in that context. One of the manipulations is, in fact, to get us to question our own needs, boundaries, and perceptions while our teacher is, at the same time, undermining our own clarity and ability to ask those questions.
This can be pathologically confusing. Internally, it’s as if your parents, the president and God are all saying that you are definitely the problem. I think many of us, in a good-hearted attempt, pursue wisdom traditions in part to address deeper, unmet and legitimate childhood needs. I don’t disparage that need at all. Being re-parented by someone a lot saner than who we grew up with can be life changing, and wisdom traditions offer so much that frankly can’t be found elsewhere.
Spirituality invites us to open our reality and question our assumptions. When you fall in love with a teacher, or a teaching, you naturally open, just as an infant opens to a parent, and yes, you are vulnerable in that—you actually have to be in order to accept something new. At its best, it opens us to much larger realms of consciousness and being, and that can put our whole lives into perspective. Because the very message is so vast, so beyond ourselves and at times so precious, we understandably give ourselves over to it. We may even need to do just that, who knows? Certainly, some teachings say that we must.
So here my earlier warning bears repeating: even an ounce of ego goes a long way when they are the ones in power.
One friend who was later assaulted by her “teacher” put it this way:
“He kept asking me what I most want, but when I would tell him what I most wanted he said that I was wrong—and to dig deeper. Ultimately, he asked me, ‘Do I have to tell you?’ And finally delivered his own verdict, ‘Well, you have a lot of shame about your sexuality.’”
She trusted him, and the people she respected also trusted him. At the time she thought, “Well, yes, there is some truth in that. So what else does he know about me?” This brought her ever closer to him.
Slowly he led her to believe that he knew her better than she did herself and that she needed him. Much later she shared with me her hard-won insight, “You can find a potential truth in anything.”
What is more chilling is that his dialogues were targeted at grooming her to have sex with him, which is exactly what happened—even as he had sworn that he never does that with his students (that was part of the manipulation to gain her trust).
“It created a dependency,” she said, “where I needed him to give me my experience to me.”
When she began to realize the insidiousness of it, she then questioned what most people would: “How could I have let this happen to me?” Her self-doubt, along with the fear of saying anything because of the danger of standing up to a community who accepted him, cost her a lot.
In the end she lost her community, her sense of self, became estranged from her husband (orchestrated by her “teacher” who encouraged her to separate from him repeatedly), went into debt, couldn’t focus, became briefly suicidal, and lost about two years of her life trying to figure out what just happened while she recovered from it. She tried to press charges but was told that it was not a viable case to take to court.
What our culture so often does at this point is to blame the victim. Well, she must have had other issues. Maybe she was unstable. She should have seen it sooner. She’s an adult, it was legal and it was her own choice.
This is a feature of what we could call “spiritual abuse.” Being preyed upon does not mean that the victim in that situation is weak, inept or the problem. The really scary thing—and why we tend to invoke that sentiment at all—is that it can happen to any of us, and does happen to more of us than we’d like to admit.
Putting our trust in anyone, while we intentionally question our own consciousness, is a high-stakes game to play.
Here is what I think is happening in these situations. Many teachers need, or come to need, an entourage to buffer their own shadow material. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have something very valuable to offer as well, just that there might be as much unresolved in them as there is in the wisdom they offer.
For example, I appreciate having an experienced and excellent pilot when I am a passenger on a plane, but that doesn’t mean he has a good relationship with his children when he gets home. Spiritual teachers are the same way. In fact, it seems that many wise and gifted teachers are particularly weak in other parts of their psyche, almost as though they excelled in one area and neglected others.
The blind spots of otherwise clear and conscious people seem to be consistent and predictable, especially when you get close to them. Because of the power they carry and their highly effective ways of getting others to open up to delicate places in themselves, the confusion and attachments of the teacher become exaggerated—causing more harm than it would in another relationship. In short, we come to trust them and let them into our inner sanctums, and then quite often they betray that trust. Even more confusing is that this is usually blamed on you, because the surrounding community is still attached to their idealized version of the teacher, so there is little or no honest mirroring of what is happening.
What I realized, and never want to emulate, is that the ego will do pretty much anything it can get away with and then justify it.
With great power comes great responsibility, and apparently when we start to get power most become blinded to the areas of ourselves that are weak, scared, sensitive or unattended to—instead, we use our formidable resources to mask those areas. Many teachers do not seem to have a reliable way to actually hear that from anyone or to meet that in themselves, never mind to recognize and cop to the harm that they are causing. At worst, they can use their uniquely powerful positions to hide from themselves and hurt and use others, and even to build a kind of “army” of supporters.
It is quite a conundrum, because many do actually have a lot of insight, and that part can be real. They also usually have very deep wounds that they enact at our expense. The following they have and the adoration they receive becomes incorporated into what is left of their egos and forms a formidable defense against feedback, or even just perceiving the impact that they have.
The ego aggrandizement of being wise, important or loved is ever present and seductive for a spiritual teacher, and oftentimes, your “teacher” needs you as much as or more than you need them. They need you emotionally, egoically and financially, and they barter their goods at that gate.
A simple answer is just not to get too close. Avail yourself of the wisdom, but don’t go into the inner circle. Don’t get entangled, just leave before things start to get weird.
A better response lies deeper, however, because humility is the real answer to this quandary. Can we say “no,” gently and categorically, even to someone who apparently has so much wisdom and influence? Can we own our full power and trust ourselves in the face of real and potent teachings? Can we be at the feet of our own knowing, no matter how ragged? Now that is a question.
Every teacher I have met has significant blind spots. These blind spots are then reflected on their students and because of their role and influence, it often does damage. That is inevitable when there is a power differential and the sacred is not held. Sometimes it is subtle, manipulative and wounding. Sometimes it is unconscionable, as in having sex with one’s students, extortion, or worse. All of these instances use someone as a “student” in order to meet a “teacher’s” needs, and if the term “spiritual incest” existed, these would be good examples of it.
Be aware that your teacher is, in whole or in part, still working out his or her own deep feelings and history, and sometimes using you to do it. Know that your wisdom is equal to theirs. In fact, that’s how you recognized them in the first place, by your own knowing, examining and intuition. Going further, don’t use your gifts when they surpass your emotional abilities but stand in your own humility instead—recognizing that someone else’s understanding of you can never be better than your own, and conversely that your understanding of someone else is never superior to theirs.
The famous Zen quote stands up here: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
Whenever we turn over our power, or even believe that someone has more wisdom than we do about ourselves, we are already lost. From there, we can actually receive great teachings that take us far beyond ourselves, simply by trusting ourselves which includes taking in that which serves and letting go of the rest.
As your own awakening unfolds, most importantly, be ready and totally willing to be discarded or not needed at any moment. In the end, one of the greatest teachings we may get from such spiritual mentors is what not to do.
Author: Kristin Luce
Image: Robin Benad/Unsplash
Editor: Emily Bartran
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