Taking the role of a spiritual teacher: Upsides, downsides, and pitfalls

I admire people who take on the role of spiritual coach or teacher.

It’s a role that comes with many challenges and downsides.

THE UPSIDES

The upsides are well known:

You get to share something that’s important to you with others.

Others get to benefit from it. (Hopefully!)

You get to learn from it. You learn from exploring it more thoroughly on your own. You learn from students. You learn from situations. You inevitably learn about yourself and your own blind spots.

You pass on what may have been passed on to you. You get to be a part of the chain.

You may follow a genuine calling. That, in itself, gives a sense of rightness and satisfaction.

There may also be some more mundane benefits, and some questionable benefits.

Depending on the circumstances, you may get lodging, food, and expenses covered, either for a while or in the long run. You may make money on it. You may be able to make it a living. You may be admired. You may get the apparent (!) benefits that come with being in a respected and admired position.

THE DOWNSIDES

There are also many possible downsides, and some are intrinsically part of the apparent benefits.

You have to deal with the many misconceptions people have about awakening and what it means and does. Many of these are ingrained in the culture and in individuals.

You have to deal with the many projections people will put on you. They will have an image of how a spiritual teacher should be, and compare you with it. They may imagine you as a savior. They may swing to the other side and see you as a villain. And so on.

You have to deal with what the role may bring up in you. Your mind may be tempted to tell you that you know and that you are right. (Overlook that we don’t know anything for certain.) You may be tempted to use the role to tell you that you are important. (Compensate for a sense of lack.) You may buy into the projections from others. (They mirror your own and you may reinforce them for yourself.) You may be tempted to take advantage of your position. (Go overboard with money. Get into relationships with your students. Have affairs. Shut down people who criticize you and how you use your position. And so on.)

I see this in many or most spiritual teachers, in one form or another, and it can lead to people going down in flames.

AVOIDING PITFALLS

We cannot really avoid pitfalls. If we are predisposed to get into them, we most likely will, with an invitation to notice one or more of our blind spots.

But we can be aware of some of them, and we can do some things to reduce the risk and minimize the fallout.

If we are part of a tradition, there are often things in place to prevent the worst excesses. Our own teacher will continue to mentor us. Our peers will hopefully give us feedback. And so on.

How do we relate to the role? If we take on the role as an identity, we set the stage for psychological inflation and abuse of power. We may use the role as a shield to protect against our own sense of lack and criticism from others. If we instead recognize it as a role, we can have a more healthy relationship with it. We recognize it’s a role we take on in a limited situation and that it otherwise doesn’t apply. We also recognize that it’s a superficial role. Even while in the role, we are more importantly a human being like anyone else with flaws and warts and all.

How do we label ourselves? If we see ourselves as a teacher, and if we take it on as an identity, we set the stage for psychological inflation and abuse of power. If we see ourselves as a coach, similar to a sports coach, we’ll tend to take a more pragmatic approach, and it’s easier to see that it’s a role we play in only some situations and leave it behind otherwise. Even better, we may see ourselves as primarily a fellow explorer and student, one that shares as the others share, and where the learning goes both ways.

How do we see ourselves in relation to the students? Do we put ourselves on a pedestal? As the one who knows while the others don’t? (If so, it’s likely a defense mechanism.) Or do we see it as a shared exploration?

Do we actively seek to learn from the others? Do we actively seek to listen to and learn from the students and our fellow explorers? Do we recognize that many of them inevitably have more experience and insights into some parts of the terrain and some phases of the process?

How real and transparent are we? Do we try to present and live up to a certain image? Or are we real and transparent about what’s going on with us?

Are we conscious of our priorities? Have we examined our priorities? What are our conscious priorities? Is it to help people find their nature? (If so, are we actively seeking out, learning, and sharing the most effective methods?) Is it to pass on our tradition? Is it to help people befriend themselves and their experiences? Are we explicit about our priorities? Also, what are the priorities we are less conscious of? What are our priorities connected with our hangups, wounds, and sense of lack?

What’s our motivation? Does it come from a genuine calling? Something we cannot help? Something we are asked to do by our own teacher? Or does it come from a desire to deal with our sense of lack? Or a combination? How is it to be honest about this? One way to explore this is to ask: What do I wish to get out of being in the role? And what do I wish to get out of that? What do I find when I follow that chain to its essence?

Are we trying to give guidance on everything? Or do we limit our guidance to practicalities relating to practices and ways to navigate certain phases in the process? In the first case, we may be buying into the stereotype of a spiritual teacher who has answers to everything, and we are likely doing ourselves and our students a disservice. (There will be a great deal others know more about and are more qualified to say something about. We are all our own final authority and it may be more helpful to invite the students to find their own answers. And we set ourselves up for inflation and the students up for projecting something superhuman onto us.) In the second case, we set the stage for a more sober and grounded approach. 

Do we actively work on our own beliefs, hangups, and projections? Do we use effective methods to work on our own wounds and projections? Are we guided and facilitated by others (preferably outside of our own community) in this?

Do we give the power to the students? Do we emphasize that we are all our own final authority? That we cannot blame anyone else for our own choices and actions? And that we cannot take anyone’s word for anything? That we need to check it out for ourselves?

Do we point out the typical misconceptions about awakening and spiritual teachers? Are we pointing out the downsides of buying into those ideas?

Do we give the students effective tools for finding their nature? Do we use approaches like the headless experiments and the Big Mind process? If not, why are we withholding it? Why are we not democratizing that part of the process?

Do we give the students pointers to recognize typical projections? Do we address the typical projections from students to teachers? Do we point out the typical pitfalls for students and teachers? Do we address how psychological inflation looks? Do we focus on shadow work?

Do we give them the tools to deal with it? Do we give them effective tools to work on projections? Do we explore these tools together? Do we create safe containers for applying them to ourselves?

Do we have a genuine system in place for checks against abuse of power? If we are part of an organization, is there an independent organ to deal with concerns, complaints, and abuse of power? Are they genuinely independent? (They should not be our students.) Do they have real power?

Of course, many of these reflect my own culture and times.

MY RELATIONSHIP WITH THIS

What’s my relationship with all of this?

I share here, and I sometimes share informally with a few friends, and that’s all.

I have not gone into the role as a guide or a teacher, for a few different reasons:

(a) I have not followed any one teacher or tradition long enough to become a teacher in a particular tradition.

(b) I am very aware of my own shortcomings and the downsides and pitfalls inherent in the role.

(c) I am not sure if I am called to it. I seem to be called to share here (it just comes out of me), but I have not noticed a calling to share formally in a group. (Apart from as a Breema instructor, TRE provider, and inquiry facilitator, but that’s a sharing that’s more specific to the modality.)

(d) I have some personal hangups and wounds that make it difficult for me. A part of me strongly dislikes to be seen and be the center of attention. This is likely a family pattern combined with personal experiences in elementary and middle school.

If I did share more in groups, it would likely be as a coach for a specific approach, and as a fellow explorer. That’s something I would be more comfortable with.

A CAVEAT: I DON’T HAVE THE INSIDE EXPERIENCE

One obvious caveat here is that I haven’t lived this experience of being a teacher or guide. I don’t know it from the inside.

The lived experience is always meatier than, and different from, imagining it.

It has unexpected wrinkles.


INITIAL NOTES

  • taking the role of a spiritual teacher
    • always impressed when people take on that role
      • the upside
        • get to share, guide,
        • sense of fellowship, shared exploration (if take that approach)
        • learn from the students (if receptive to it)
      • the downsides / risks / pitfalls
        • seems a thankless task, in many ways,
        • receive lots of projections, have to deal with lots of misconceptions, etc.
        • risk getting into power trips oneself
          • abuse power
          • identify with the role, start “becoming” a teacher even outside of the situation where the role is appropriate
          • try to live up to ideas of how you should be, ideas about the role, live up to how you think others see you.
          • try to hide sides of yourself and your life instead of being transparent and real
    • may be easier if…
      • imagine it may be easier if follow a tradition and is trained in a tradition, paint by the numbers to some extent (and, of course, still a science and an art)
      • also perhaps a bit easier if have a technique, body focus, etc.
      • if emphasize projection work, taking ones own responsibility, notice we are all our own final authority, are transparent and real
      • work on oneself, primarily
      • see it as sharing, friends, more level playing field (don’t place yourself above, apart from in the sense of perhaps having a bit more experience with some things)
      • know that others may and will have more experience and insights into some or many areas, including your own students
      • have the orientation of learning from the students
      • transparency, working with projections
    • personally
      • chosen to just follow my own explorations
      • stay anonymous
      • most people who know me don’t even know I am interested in these things
      • don’t even tell spiritual teachers about my history, in most cases, unless they first perceive it themselves
      • partly because I am aware of the drawbacks and pitfalls of going into that role, and partly because of personal very human hangups (don’t like attention, wounded from school)

How we label ourselves is important. If we see ourselves as a teacher, and if we take it on as an identity, we set the stage for psychological inflation and abuse of power. If we see ourselves as a coach, similar to a sports coach, we’ll tend to take a more pragmatic approach, and it’s easier to see that it’s a role we play in only some situations and leave it behind otherwise. Even better, we may see ourselves as primarily a fellow explorer and student, one that shares as the others share, and where the learning goes both ways.

…..

Do we take situations as an opportunity to learn about ourselves?

….

Why? It’s not necessarily because they are doing something amazing, it’s because I know it comes with many challenges and downsides.

….

There are unexpected wrinkles.

…..

One obvious caveat here is that I don’t have (much) experience from being in the role of a teacher. I don’t know it from the inside.

There is always a lot to learn from the actual experience that you wouldn’t imagine before getting into the grit of it. The lived experience is meatier than and different from imagining it.

….

Are we trying to give guidance on everything? Including areas we may not be so familiar with? If so, we may be buying into the stereotype of a spiritual teacher who has answers to everything, and we are likely doing ourselves and our students a disservice. (There will be a great deal others know more about and are more qualified to say something about. We are all our own final authority and it may be more helpful to invite the students to find their own answers. And we set ourselves up for inflation and the students up for projecting something superhuman onto us.) Or do we limit our guidance to practicalities relating to practices and ways to navigate certain phases in the process? If so, we set the stage for a more sober and grounded approach. 

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