How do we tell the difference between an ethical, heart-centered healing practitioner or other spiritual mentor, and one who is interested in (or addicted to) sucking others’ energy by way of wearing the “costume” of a spiritual leader, or healer, or teacher, or shaman, or guru?
This is an enormous issue given the amount of predation and serious injury that is currently happening in the name of “healing work.” My husband Hanan (who is a gifted shaman in the true sense of the word) and I help many clients—who have essentially been swindled or physically and energetically impoverished by unethical, unqualified, often deceptive “energy work” that leaves them feeling confused and hurt—to retrieve their power.
Not infrequently, this damage can actually be life-threatening in severity.
One of my key goals as a writer is to begin to create a map or blueprint of much needed ethical standards to navigate the chaos, so that we may all become oriented to both our power and our responsibility, both as practitioners and clients.
Here are some potential red flags to consider:
1. Needs to claim superiority/inferiority with regards to another. In my experience, someone who is centered in their own heartspace and aligned with their own power with regards to their healing work, teachings, and offerings will not attempt to leverage themselves into a position where they are “above” another in a hierarchical sense, by claiming that they are privy to realms of holiness, divinity, and power that are categorically not available to others—as a means of trying to gain control or power. They will not make claims to be more “advanced,” “awake,” or “evolved” than another.
For example, when we see people giving themselves the titles of “master” or “guru” and claiming to be at a higher level of spiritual realization or enlightenment compared to another, that—for me—is a huge red flag. This very model strikes me as being a problematic aspect of an antiquated—if not obsolete—conception of “rarified divinity,” in which power is reserved for a select, special few to whom the masses must devote themselves.
I believe with my entire heart and being that divine experience and actualization is available to us all, each through the lens of our specific vessel and respective unique gifts. Thus the guru who needs (on an unconscious level) inferior/subordinated students in order to reify his identity and importance as such should be treated with a healthful scrutiny.
By contrast, there are those who see themselves as unique embodiments, living and sharing their own process. There are those who see themselves as chosen to play a certain role in a complementary way, with equally important others. There are those who see themselves as an elder or a mentor who have simply been around awhile and therefore have experienced a great deal of life, and perhaps have learned some lessons along the way that may be a value or service. These choices feel much more along the lines of someone who I would regard with seriousness and respect in a healing or mentorship capacity.
2) Believes that their path is the only way to enlightenment. Recently, I encountered a a guru who claimed that he was a “level 10” of enlightenment, whereas everyone around him was at a much lower level of five or six on whatever arbitrary scale of enlightenment he was using.
When a spiritual “leader” or “master” seems to feel that their truth (or system of enlightenment, or perspective on what spiritual “mastery” even is) is the one and only valid system, rather than recognizing that there are a multiplicity of paths to self-knowing, there’s likely a problem.
No one guru represents the one and only path to truth nor the one and only system of truth, because truth is always an inside job—and furthermore, the path, as I know it, is not linear. Thus, the ability to recognize and respect the sovereignty of a variety of perspectives is another crucial characteristic by which I personally recognize an ethical mentor or spiritual guide.
3) The talk doesn’t match the walk. If a teacher or healing practitioner claims to be loving, do they then uphold this with grace toward those around them, including their clients? Do we see the evidence of this in the fruits of their life? Can they allow healthful dissent and disagreement? Do they have grounded, real love, stability, and fulfillment in their lives? Do they lead by example, rooted in the sort of life that you yourself would like to lead?
Are they consistent in their standards, holding themselves accountable in the same way they wish you to be accountable? Are they honest, fair, and forthcoming in all aspects of relationship? Do they engage the work in a way that feels in full integrity, in terms of transparency and commitment? Do they hold appropriate boundaries with regards to themselves and their clients?
If the teacher or healer feels justified in browbeating you in any way despite their constant teachings of “love,” or if they insist that you agree with them in order to gain their approval, these are huge red flags that you are dealing with something cult-like, and that the “healer” has wounds they themselves need to address before attempting to heal others.
4) Boundary violations. This brings me to another huge point: the tendency for many so-called spiritual masters and teachers to routinely violate—or in subtle ways to promote the violation of—others’ boundaries. These types will often demote “selfhood” and personal identity in favor of an undifferentiated “oneness” that creates confusion about where the client ends and the healer begins, which sets up a dynamic of easy predation. This is particularly easy to implement in the case in which the client is an abuse survivor, already wounded with regards to boundaries and holding an underdeveloped sense of self.
Red flags to me in this regard include but are not limited to: assertions that the body is not real, that the earth plane is not “real,” and that selfhood and identity are not “real.” Statements such as as “what you resist persists” (negating boundaries and self-protection), “you are in your ego” (using shame to invalidate gut instincts), “what you are, you attract” (gaslighting and victim blaming), and many other common “spiritual” teachings subtly send the message that we do not have the right or the need to hold our own selfhood and boundaries. Rather, they tell us that the entire notion of selfhood and identity are attached to ego, and therefore must be annihilated to make space for a more “spiritual” experience. All of this is, in my humble opinion and experience, is unaligned at best and extremely dangerous at worst.
The healer or teacher should not, in my perspective, attempt to conduct “energy work” on the client without full knowledge of a client’s situation. Additionally, as each individual’s energy field is sacrosanct, it shouldn’t be entered without consent fully in place. Look out for expressions, such as, “I tapped into your field,” or, “You called me into journey with you,” or, “Source told me to work on you last night” that take place without your full knowing and permission. This is, in my experience, rarely aligned and quite often a form of malevolent magic, which can unfortunately be all too real in its consequences.
Such teachers often also profess to have no self and to simply be an instrument of the divine, fully bypassing their selfhood and humanity. In so doing, they refuse to acknowledge or take responsibility for their humanity and often use “humility” and “annihilation of the ego” as a means of berating and subtly gaslighting proponents into thinking that they too should have no identity or selfhood.
They often operate from a false, Christ-like sense of calmness, presence, and humility that models how we should all be, yet when questioned or when the client simply wants to step away, become megalomaniacal and aggressive, insisting that the client behave in a certain manner. All healing and teaching experiences should come with the right to peacefully disagree or walk away at one’s own discretion without threat of some sort of retribution or punishment from the teacher. Period.
5) Exhibits coldness and/or cannot account for their own shadow. Another big question to ask is, does the spiritual mentor in question admit to you and freely own his or her shadow? Do they admit to being human, to having human needs, frailties, failings, room for growth, a path of learning of their own through which they learn how to more closely embody the truth that they have learned in the first person?
Are they able to acknowledge and fully account for their own fallibility, sadness, anger, grief, and shame as appropriate? Or do they project a false image of perfection, a false image of success, a false image of having it together all the time, without being able to fully own the light and the shadow? Can they acknowledge and even celebrate their own humanity?
6) Lives a kind of life you don’t personally wish to lead. The teacher or healing practitioner you choose is ultimately someone you might like to more closely resemble. This needs to go deeper than just looking “successful” in terms of having money, a pretty person on their arm, and the right kind of house or car. It needs to be bone-deep.
For me personally, any spiritual mentor that I would wish to learn from—and connect closely with—would hold exquisitely dear and cherish the value of life—including (and especially) embodied earthly life. Therefore, that person would recognize and encourage personal discernment, sovereignty, and the ability to hold successful and self-honoring boundaries in each and every human being he or she encounters.
They would demonstrate warmth and connection in a well-boundaried way that does not coerce or demand the other to abdicate their own selfhood, internal knowing, or well-being, but rather would encourage the other to embrace and develop these. They would value children, animals, plants, and the entire living world and recognize the importance of these in their own right, not just in service to making themselves look good.
Whatever your personal values are, make sure that your teacher is someone who holds these dear and really lives them.
7) Holds an unsafe/unknown/shady relationship with plant medicines, substances, or sexual power. What is the individual’s relationship to their work vis-a-vis potentially self- and identity-altering substances, such as ayahuasca, that could open the self up to energies that may or may not be of sacred, well-meaning intention? Is there a sacred container provided for all this work? Are the intentions pure, serious, and heart-aligned? Is there sufficient knowing of the original context of this sort of substance-driven ceremony to provide adequate energetic and physical safety?
One must discern for oneself what kind of relationship they wish to have with powerful plant teachers, and vet practitioners very carefully who work with such substances and plant medicines—which, in my opinion, are routinely misused or abused with highly mixed results, and even seriously deleterious consequences.
I personally do not use these at all in my healing work, nor does my husband. I’m not closed to the idea that they could be used well, yet I’m not under the impression that they generally are in the current climate. I encourage an extremely cautious relationship with this practice, since many clients have come to us following “plant ceremonies” feeling very destabilized and carrying foreign energies/entities. Use all your discernment and spidey sense.
Relatedly, I personally would not advocate mixing healing work with poorly formed or poorly held sexual boundaries. Sexual energy, much like that core essence opened and revealed by plant teachers, is highly sensitive and sacred, and must be treated with the utmost care. I feel that sexual intimacy is best held by the deepest possible trust and safety, built over time in sacred relationship. Again, we’ve had a host of clients come to us with horror stories about the “work” done under the guise of “sexual healing” and/or “liberation,” that in so many cases are—in my perspective—nothing other than absolute abuse, predation, and manipulative harvesting of sexual essence by malevolent, predatory forces.
8) Generates a rabbit-hole pay scheme. By this I mean, an aligned healer or teacher will be above-board about total costs from the outset of your discussion with them, and not attempt to make you pay more and more for additional healing that you “need,” that were not discussed up front. It’s one thing to propose additional work as an option; it’s quite another to manufacture scenarios in which the client must continue to fork out cash repeatedly to finally receive the necessary work or to pretend that more is necessary, that isn’t. Work with teachers and healing practitioners who are more interested in the work than the money, and if it feels like scam—it probably is.
In closing, energy work should—in my perspective—feel straightforward, “clean,” honest, and above board. It should not rely on shame or secrets, violate boundaries, or reduce the client’s self-worth in any way. While the work might be challenging and daunting, it should not feel confusing in the sense of being manipulative or doublespeak-y, or blur into areas (such as sexual) that are not fully articulated and agreed upon up front.
Remember that you have the right to opt out of the work at any point if that is what you decide. Regardless of whether or not you can get a refund if you’ve already paid, I feel it’s generally better not to go through with work that feels off to you. While others can certainly facilitate healing and be an important ally in your life, you are the key to your own healing process and growth—and any true teacher, healer, or leader (however they self-describe) is going to continuously remind you that your power and discernment belongs to you and you alone, and gently hand it back to you if you try to give it away.
And we will mean it.
Author: Sara Sophia Eisenman
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Callie Rushton