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When a spiritual teacher we respect and love is accused of taking advantage of a student in a way that crosses ethical and professional boundaries, the invisible glass of illusion is shattered and we are forced to face the truth of our disillusionment.
Earlier this month, Kyle Cease, a Hollywood stand-up comedian and actor, turned motivational speaker, spiritual teacher, meditation retreat facilitator, and a Hay House author, was accused by one of his students of an abuse of power.
I stumbled upon Kyle’s YouTube videos a little over two years ago and immediately resonated with what he had to say. I purchased all the Evolving Out Loud material and dove in. I pay a monthly membership fee for his Absolutely Everything Pass—an online community of students and clients. I became devoted to his weekly web calls. I signed up for his week-long meditation retreat at the Asilomar Conference Center, where Dr. Wayne Dyer wrote his books and recorded his film “The Shift.” I began referring to him as my guru, a label I used with feelings of love and respect for what I was learning from his teaching.
During his weekly calls, I watched him break down barriers, disassemble emotional blocks, and lead people into healing of emotional traumas. Without realizing what was happening, I had put this man, who had never professed to be anything more than a dude following his calling, on a pedestal.
And then, after 18 months of unbroken weekly calls, Kyle didn’t show up for two weeks. The online community was advised that he was sick.
On his first call following his absence, he turned off the web chat, a usually busy cyber space where all the participants exchange pleasantries, support one another, share ideas, and rib Kyle about his hair. This was my first clue that something about this call was going to be different. He didn’t want to be distracted with people’s reactions to what he was about to share.
And what he had to say was huge. It rocked my world. Kyle came clean about a romantic relationship he had had with a female student, who has now accused him of abuse of power, of taking advantage of her emotionally and sexually when she was in a vulnerable state.
In the woman’s Facebook post, she admitted that the relationship was consensual. She had looked up to him then as a trusted teacher and coach, who had held space for her in her most vulnerable moments, and then felt coerced into a romantic and sexual relationship that, ethically, should never have happened between a client and coach.
And it did.
But what really happened? Only she and Kyle know, and even then, their individual truths are colored by their perceptions of each other’s actions.
Our society has strong feelings about women who have felt preyed upon by spiritual teachers or men in power in general (#MeToo). Does Kyle have anything in common with the Harvey Weinsteins, Bikram Choudhurys, and Swami Shankarananda of the world? All powerful men, spiritual teachers, even mystics. Did the women who came forward about these men’s behaviors feel used? Taken advantage of? Did they want it to happen?
In all teacher/student, coach/client relationships, the onus is on the teacher or coach to say, “No! This type of relationship crosses an ethical boundary.” In a perfect world, where everyone takes 100 percent responsibility for themselves, a student or client should have had the wherewithal to send the teacher or coach packing if their advances were in any way inappropriate.
But we don’t live in a perfect world, and the truth is, many teachers and coaches do not seem to hold themselves to a stern code of conduct. They fail to acknowledge their blind spots and the clear imbalance of power inherent in these relationships. They fail to foresee their actions to the final domino, after all the others have fallen, at which point the consequences are felt by everyone involved: family, friends, acquaintances, students, colleagues, team members, partners, children. What at first may have appeared as a harmless interaction between two consenting adults turns into feelings of betrayal of mammoth proportions.
What happens then? In Kyle’s case, a sh*t storm ensued. Polarization moved at the speed of a flash fire.
“Women don’t lie,” someone commented in the Facebook group. “It’s done. Let’s learn from it and move on,” someone else said. “It’s scripted. He’s lying,” another comment. “Something always felt off. Never trusted him,” wrote another.
People who only a days ago sang his praises turned on him like a pack of hungry hyenas, while others, although not openly calling the accuser an opportunist, eluded to as much and supported Kyle for coming forward, being honest, making a mistake, being human, and evolving.
Yes, the logical reaction is to take sides, to see the situation as black-and-white. Right and wrong. It’s where we are comfortable and protect ourselves from feeling the pain of betrayal, and make it impossible to see the human side of the story and that it is a narrative as told by two individuals, each knowing their own truth as seen through their own lens.
When we choose sides, we turn away from compassion for all living things, from acknowledging our own flaws and mistakes, and seeing the adversities we have faced in our lives that have grown us into who we are today.
The code of ethics would dictate that Kyle should have known better, but for whatever reason, he didn’t. That was his best at the time. If he had known better, he would have done better.
Is Kyle a master manipulator? Is he a predator? Or is he just a dude looking for love who really sucks at making sound romantic decisions?
I ask myself. Had I not put Kyle Cease up on a pedestal, would I be feeling pain and betrayal today?
Writer and teacher Natalie Goldberg said this: “Disappointment and failure bring us down to the ground so we can see through our ideas to the way things really are. And when that happens, it is really the Great Success.”
The truth is that all of us have committed acts that in the moment seemed harmless and in the rearview mirror proved catastrophic to ourselves and to those we love. We have all hurt others and have been hurt ourselves. That is the rub of human existence.
I imagine Kyle is reeling with guilt. Maybe he is not as evolved as I believed him to be. Maybe…gasp…he is simply a five-year-old boy in a man’s body looking for love in all the wrong places. I imagine the woman who came forward was looking for the same thing; she also feels victimized and is in tremendous emotional pain. I don’t doubt either of their stories and therefore refuse to take sides.
This straddling does not come without heartbreak. What a teacher does affects the whole community. There is a shadow now that will remain until we look at it. Kyle is being asked to be accountable. To take responsibility for his actions.
Was he aware of his power differential? Did he knowingly engage in behavior that could be perceived as predatory? Did he manipulate his student to do things she later interpreted as wrong?
Only two people know the truth.
For me, all I can do is bring Kyle down from my pedestal and look at him as an equal, a human who is no different from me. I no longer consider him my guru, and this experience has challenged me to question whether calling someone “a guru” is an appropriate label for anyone.
Kyle Cease is both a great teacher and a man capable of abusing his power. If I take sides, I must either ignore what he has done in favor of continuing to blindly trust him or be forced to ignore the gifts he has given me.
Life is not black-and-white, and neither are people.
I choose the gray. I choose to stay awake to how things really are.