Confession: I am often a tiny bit disappointed when I hear – or sometimes speak with – spiritual teachers.
There are a few I haven’t been disappointed in, including Adyashanti, Byron Katie, Douglas Harding, and Jes Bertelsen. I should also include Stephan Bodian, Jeff Foster, and Matt Licata here, and probably a few more.
And there are innumerable situations where I secretly have been disappointed in spiritual teachers.
Sometimes, they have clarity but seem a bit one-sided in how they talk about it. (Neo-advaita.)
Sometimes, they may have clarity but it gets obscured by tradition or the culture and time they are from.
Sometimes, they don’t seem to come from a clear noticing of their true nature.
Sometimes, what they say seems to reflect unquestioned and unexamined assumptions.
Sometimes, what they say gets colored by what may be their personal hangups.
SOME REASONS WHY I GET DISAPPOINTED
There may be several reasons why I feel some disappointment.
The most obvious is in me….
I had hopes and stories that reality punctured. More accurately, my stories about reality punctured my own initial hopes and stories.
I have my own hangups, emotional issues, and traumas, and this filter my perception and how I respond. I see that my own disappointment is often connected with a central emotional wound in me. In my case, it’s feeling not seen or understood, and for others, it may be whatever their central issue is.
And then there is the bigger picture…
In the bigger picture, this is not about me. The world is not here to follow my personal preferences. If anything, it’s here to mirror me.
They may speak to someone else. Other people have different preferences, orientations, next steps in their process, and so on.
They may be loyal to their tradition and clothe their language in the tradition more than finding their own more immediate and fresh ways of expressing it.
Also, they may be less clear. They may not have examined something very thoroughly. They may not be so skilled in expressing it. They are messy human beings with their own hangups, emotional issues, and perhaps even traumas.
THE UPSIDE OF BEING DISAPPOINTED IN SPIRITUAL TEACHERS
There are several upsides in this.
It creates a contrast with the spiritual teachers I resonate with and it shows me that they are not many so any guidance from them is precious.
It invites me to examine more closely what’s going on, which will be slightly different in each case. The essence is that I set myself up for disappointment, and the specifics will be specific to each situation.
It reminds me that, in the bigger picture, this is not about me and my preferences. Different things resonate with each of us. Clarity sometimes gets mixed up with our messy humanness. And there is an infinite amount of what’s going on in the bigger picture I don’t know about and likely never will.
It brings me back to myself….
Each of these teachers is a mirror for me. I can find in myself what I see over there, whether it’s clarity or confusion. Whatever story I have about them, I can turn it to myself and find concrete examples of how it’s true.
It helps me recognize that I am my own final authority, even if I try to give it away. I can learn from a variety of people, whether they take on a “spiritual teacher” role or not, and I cannot avoid that I am my own final authority.
I’ll include a few examples here to ground it.
First a couple of general ones….
It’s common for people to get disappointed by the personal life of some spiritual teachers. If we set the teacher up as an infallible guru, whether it’s in their insights and life, we set ourselves up for disappointment. When that happens, it’s a reminder that they are human beings too with their own hangups and messiness. It’s a reminder to not put people, or anything really, up on a pedestal, at least not for long. It’s a reminder to find in ourselves what we see in them, even if it looks a little different.
A spiritual teacher may also, for whatever reason, not give us what we want or think we need. They may not tell us we are amazing and their best student ever. They may treat us in a very neutral way and set us to clean the floor. This is the old-fashioned way to help students wear off their neediness, and some still do it although it’s less common these days. Today, it’s more common to see a meeting of two human beings with a shared interest, where one is a bit further along in exploring it and is coaching the other.
And then some from my own life….
Some neo-Advaita teachers talk mostly from the “absolute”. This is probably to compensate for the more typical view which is more from the “relative”, but it does give a one-sided impression of what it’s about. For me, this is an invitation to notice what they speak about, and also add the other side so it becomes more whole.
Christian mystics sometimes cover up their clarity in tradition, and the timeless and universal gets obscured by their time and place. This is an invitation to find the glimmers of the universal. I have also seen this in some mystics from other traditions, and some traditional Buddhist teachers. They come from a different time and tradition, and they spoke to people from the same time and tradition. Most of them probably couldn’t even have imagined that people decades or centuries later would read what they said or wrote.
I met with a spiritual teacher in Oslo (Vigdis G.) once, and instead of engaging in a real dialogue (as I had expected), she lectured, jumped to conclusions, and said obvious things as if it was special. Here, I clearly had different expectations and reality disappointed. I had hoped to find a like-minded person in Norway and have a real conversation between two human beings. What happened helped me see this wish in me and that I had invested some energy into it. It also reminded me of my time in Oslo many years earlier when the initial awakening happened in my mid-teens. I couldn’t find anyone who understood and felt alone at a human level for that reason. After the conversation, I saw that if I had more presence of mind, I could have pointed this out in the conversation and it may have gone a bit differently (or not).
I was involved with a local spiritual group in Oregon. When I initially met with the main teacher, I mentioned the initial awakening (that had happened many years earlier), he asked if I currently experienced some of the typical side-effects of awakening, and I said no. He took this to mean there was no awakening. Again, if I had more presence of mind, I would have shared with him that they happened years ago but not anymore. My typical pattern is to not volunteer much information about this, perhaps because for so many years I was used to nobody in my life understanding, so I set myself up for it. The outcome was that I felt disappointed in the conversation.
When I look at specific cases, I see that I set myself up for the disappointment. In what way depends on the situation. And it’s often very sobering to see.
In my case, the disappointment often revolves around a very human wound of not feeling seen and understood since that’s a central issue in my life. For others, their disappointment may be connected with whatever central emotional issues they have.
I should also mention that when I lived at the Zen center in Salt Lake City, the main teacher didn’t disappoint me so much. I got to see him as a human being with his own insecurities and hangups, so the human and relatively universal human flaws I saw in him were not really disappointing. It was more a reminder that we are all in this together. (I did get upset about what I perceived as injustice and nepotism, but it wasn’t so much from disappointment in him.)
And, of course, I have had interactions with spiritual teachers that were deeply rewarding and helpful in a more immediate and conventional sense. Perhaps especially with Adyashanti.
Note: If I wrote this again, I would probably focus more on the types of disappointments most people experience. I realize mine are a bit niche. But I wanted to make this article a bit more personal, and it’s difficult to write it again with my current brain fog, so I’ll leave it as is. My periods with stronger brain fog help me come to terms with imperfection and find where it’s “good enough”.Read More