The Perils of Spiritual Leadership

Guru in the light

The challenges of spiritual leadership have recently been highlighted in a New York Times article  for an individual linked with the integral community.

Is this a problem unique to the integral community, to spiritual teachers or to leaders in general? Personally, I think the question is complex, important and too often swept under the rug. Without wishing to comment on any one individual, I believe that spiritual leaders bear a special responsibility to support others’ development with skill and compassion, and to demonstrate overall healthy behaviors. So why, I ask myself, has the behavior of so many spiritual leaders been off the mark, or downright reprehensible?

Abuses of Power

This is not just a problem for contemporary leaders or integral teachers. Here in Canada we have a 100 year history of priests abusing indigenous children in their care. The Roman Catholic Church around the world has been racked by numerous cases of sexual abuse. People in positions of power in any domain may abuse that power – be they entertainers such as Bill Cosby, politicians or business leaders. As my husband remarked, no matter your line of work, it is very easy for power to corrupt. But our spiritual leaders we do hold to a higher standard than other mere mortals, particularly if they lay claim to enlightened or god-drenched states. I have personal experience of spiritual teachers going wonky.

My first teacher, of Tibetan Buddhism, left her own teacher because he had sexually molested her son, among others. The public break with the community which she had helped to found was profound, hurtful, kept secret, and resented by many others. At her best, she was one of the most compassionate people I have ever met, motivated by altruism, her life dedicated to teaching. I witnessed her struggles in two areas. The first was the balance between the sword and the sheath in her role as a teacher – both compassion and a sharper pointing out of dark or blind spots in the student. Some students were quite damaged by this. The second was her organizational leadership; inspiring and requiring enormous amounts of volunteer labour to build a teaching centre, in what I now see as an inherently unsustainable business model.

In 2011 I went to Mt. Baldy Zen Center for a 10 retreat, but mostly to be in the presence of Joshu Sasaki Roshi. At aged 104 he was then the most senior Zen master in North America, an innovative interpreter of classic Zen teaching and a large influence on my own teacher. I have never experienced such a being; space-time itself seemed to warp around him. And I was warned in advance about his sexual abuse with women– but only privately, by a female colleague. A year later his long history of sexual misconduct was publicly revealed.  His community had kept his behaviour very hush-hush. To protect themselves, to protect him; because they couldn’t reconcile the paradox?

Integral Coaching Diagnostic

So why, I ask myself, does abuse of power, sexual or otherwise, occur so broadly? The integral framework provides a dashboard for diagnosing spiritual leader problems, as any other coaching topic. [Warning: integral speak ahead!] The orienting quadrants and lines of developmental intelligence are one clue. Like many prodigies who pursue one area single mindedly, spiritual teachers often display uneven development, e.g. high cognitive and spiritual development with weak moral or interpersonal development. The vertical stage of development has a big impact, as do the typical blind spots associated with a personality type. (I think my Tibetan teacher was green stage, Enneagram 2 type, lower understanding of her impact on others and strong identification with subtle states. Joshu Sasaki Roshi was definitely pre-modern amber stage, which colored his interpretation of morality.)

The state stabilization has a big impact. As you come into increasing contact with source/ God, you can have regular access to subtle, causal or non-dual states. Yet we still have to express this in form, in our regular everyday lives. The states can have a magnetic, charismatic quality, attracting students and adulation. It is all too easy to mistake the energy that comes through you for energy that comes from you; a subtle but crucial distinction.

Other challenges comes from;

  • Realization does not mean skill. Just because you have touched source or feel united with spirit does not mean that you are a skilled teacher, coach, parent, citizen, or organizational leader. These everyday skills have to be learned in the tumble of daily living.
  • The failure to include what you have transcended. Yes, you may reject conventional morals, as both Jesus and Gautama Buddha did. But how do you do this in a way that preserves the best of the old, that speaks to an extension of those for whom we care, rather than a perverse serving of your own interests?
  • An unfortunate by-product of the spiritual path of transcendence. When energy and attention is sufficiently concentrated, one can “shoot up out of the top chakra” and experience different / higher states. This tends to privilege state experience. The path of embodiment (which seems to have been my lot in life) is a slow, iterative cycle of learning, healing, cleansing… and then bringing it on home into daily living.
  • Spiritual bypassing, where spiritual experience or skills are not used to address personal shadow areas.
  • The attraction of power. Whether it is positional power, the glow of hormones, the magnetic attraction of source or the projection of our own longings, it is easy to project onto power or to mistake its origin.

Be a Grown-up; Do Your Homework

So – what to do about this mess? I actually think it’s pretty straight forward, basic modern day common sense.  Do your homework—in business terms your due diligence– and enter any student-teacher relationship with your eyes wide open.

About the teacher. What do a range of students say? Does his/her behaviors conform to basic decent ethics? What else have they done in life besides spiritual teaching? Does the teacher seem to have your best interest at heart?

About the community. Does it feel closed, or require enormous amounts of your time or money to stay afloat? How do they feel about you practicing with other teachers? Are you encouraged to limit your connections with others?

Is this teacher a good fit for you, at this time, for now? Re-assess regularly, as you or they will change. Keep your expectations realistic. Remember that in daily life, no one is perfect. The very idea of perfection may be no more than a child-like hangover, wish fulfillment or projection. Remember too that beauty, truth, love come in many flavours, constantly changing. While a guide can help you seek, what you find will be unique to you.

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