Shouldn’t spiritual teachers be honest?
Some spiritual teachers use sophisticated marketing techniques to sell their message—a socially acceptable form of deception. A recent email from the Ken Wilber-affiliated organization Integral Life announces an online seminar called The Key to Evolving Beyond Ego: How to Make the Change that Changes Everything, taught by Craig Hamilton. Hamilton is described as having spent “13 years in a living laboratory of evolution—a modern-day monastery where he pursued his spiritual training day and night.” This “living laboratory” was run by Andrew Cohen, Hamilton’s teacher during those 13 years, whose harsh and coercive treatment of his students is well documented. Last year Cohen stepped down from leading his organization and stopped teaching, having finally gotten the message from his students that he still had some ego left to deal with.
Why is his association with Cohen hidden in Hamilton’s marketing? Where is his acknowledgment of the support he gave Cohen all those years as one of the leaders of his organization and the editor of his magazine, What Is Enlightenment? And why is there no apology for his complicity with Cohen’s misconduct?
I made several attempts to contact Hamilton and his organization regarding this issue, with no response. Perhaps he doesn’t consider his former teacher’s behavior to be harmful, but if so, why the lack of transparency? And doesn’t he think that prospective students (being enticed to pay hundreds of dollars for his seminars) might deserve to know where he got his training?
If you claim to express the deepest truth of existence, then doesn’t that mean you tell the truth? While this would seem to be self-evident, spiritual teachers too often exhibit a remarkable disregard for candor and openness, leading to the suspicion that their power depends on obfuscation and deceit.
We can cite so many cases of gurus who tried to cover up their bad behavior that it seems endemic to the form: Muktananda, John Friend, Satchidananda, Adi Da, Amrit Desai, and on and on, ad nauseam. The abuse of power in the arenas of sex, money, and violence are common enough in spiritual teachers as to be almost routine. We’re no longer surprised when the latest scandal surfaces, and we struggle to think of teachers who are untouched by impropriety and the ensuing lies.
When there is a hierarchical structure there is usually an inner circle where the favored few are pledged to secrecy about the teacher. Discretion is rewarded with greater access to the teacher, higher status, and power over those in the larger circle. Everything the guru does is for the student’s benefit, they’re told, so anything from theft to sex with followers is rationalized as such. And meanwhile—please keep it from the less advanced students. After all, they don’t understand how the teaching process works.
On his website, Hamilton discusses the issue of teacher immorality, again without mentioning his own teacher:
…how many of us have been deeply confused, angry, or even disillusioned to discover that a great, seemingly enlightened spiritual Master we looked up to was either abusive, financially corrupt, or a sexual deviant who lied openly to cover up the fact that they were sleeping with a harem of attractive disciples behind their wife’s back (or while proclaiming to be celibate—take your pick)? (And by the way, that statement was not a dig at anybody specific—it’s a story that’s been told so many times, we could come up with dozens of examples)….as my beloved friend Ken Wilber likes to put it, … “why are most spiritual teachers such assholes?”
Indeed, much of the spiritual metanarrative of the past forty years of Western spirituality reads like a tragic soap opera. We’ve watched as one after another of our most promising spiritual teachers publicly fell from grace, committing serious moral transgressions, collapsing into corruption and scandal. And this has been an extremely challenging reality for millions of contemporary spiritual seekers. Many have been wondering whether enlightenment is really all it’s cracked up to be. Or if authentic spiritual attainment is even possible. To compound the problem, many half-baked spiritual teachers have capitalized on this doubt, making light of their “human imperfections” as a demonstration of their humility and “spiritual maturity.” And in so doing, they have only continued to erode our sense of what is actually possible.
Since scandal-ridden gurus are overwhelmingly male, here’s a wonderful response by an insightful woman to the article by Craig Hamilton just quoted, addressing how we decide what constitutes a spiritual luminary and spiritual knowledge, and what gender has to do with it. I highly recommend you read it.
Finally, here’s an analysis of the unfortunate tendency to abusive behavior by teachers who say it’s necessary for battling the ego. It’s from The Essence of Enlightenment: Vedanta, the Science of Consciousness, a forthcoming book by James Swartz, to be published by my company, Sentient Publications, later this year:
Recently I received an email with a link to a web blog by a reasonably famous “enlightened” teacher in the Neo-Advaita world. He said he was renouncing gurudom to work on himself and become a “better person.” It was a surprising event because arrogant people invariably live in an ironclad state of denial, the better to project their emotional problems on others. Evidently the chorus of angry voices that followed him for twenty-seven years swelled to such a din that it became too loud to ignore. His statement will undoubtedly be seen by some as a courageous act of contrition, the uplifting resolve of a newly minted reprobate taking the first halting steps on the road to redemption and by others as a disingenuous attempt to make the public believe that he was not forced to step down by his organization, leaving the door open for a triumphant return once he had atoned for his sins.
… What actually happened to our yogi? He imagined he had transcended himself, came to believe that he now inhabited a special experiential niche reserved only for the few, and convinced himself that his epiphany empowered him to enlighten others. Along with it came the companion belief that the end justifies the means, opening the door to a remarkably abusive “teaching.” The craving for power, born of his sense of smallness and inadequacy, present from childhood, survived the epiphany—as such things do—and immediately manifested in his environment with predictable results, blinding him to life’s number one moral value, non-injury.
Although he spoke non-duality, his version of enlightenment was pure duality…
Spirituality without honesty is delusion. But it seems that integrity is too much to expect of some who say they have the keys to truth. The change that can change everything in the spiritual marketplace is a radical dose of complete disclosure.
MORE: Need a good laugh after contemplating that?
Connie Shaw is the publisher at Sentient Publications in Boulder, Colorado, which focuses on books with fresh perspectives on holistic health, transformative spirituality, alternative education, and ecology. She is also co-author of The Tao of Walt Whitman.