Any Spiritual Teacher Can (and Likely Will) Cause Harm

No human is perfect. The question is whether our less-than-skillful uses of power will be minor or devastating.

Sometimes teacher misconduct is thought of as something committed by only a very few “scoundrels and sociopaths” (source of quote: open letter signed by 90 senior Zen teachers). Yet if we stay uninformed about teacher power and do not use it with extreme care, it is not only possible but likely that we will end up misusing it ourselves.

The longer I’ve been practicing, the more fellow practitioners I find who are on their second, third, or fourth spiritual community…or have given up entirely. They encountered teachers who acted like bullies. Or know-it-alls. Or who spread around things told to them in confidence. Or demanded complete, unquestioning loyalty. Who misspent funds, lied to authorities and to the sangha, or, yes, pushed sexual boundaries. Or simply did little things that made a student feel “icky” one too many times.

Yet these teachers are usually surrounded by senior students who defend them, as well as by others who trust them. Perhaps the teacher has an international reputation as being especially wise. The teacher may even have spoken out strongly about abuses committed by other teachers. Being alone or in a minority, the practitioners who notice the teacher’s own misconduct often have no choice but to move on.

Harmful boundary violations may have their source in a teacher’s hope to gain something specific, such as money, power, or sex. But more commonly they are about some need or hole the teacher sees an opportunity to fill.

These needs could seem quite trivial: In At Personal Risk: Boundary Violations in Professional-Client Relationships, Marilyn Peterson describes how she needed to fill a slot on a conference panel, and suggested that one of her therapy clients (who she knew had expertise in the area) take it on. While innocently intended, this muddying of boundaries created considerable confusion for the client. We tend to forget how our actions might be perceived by those with less power.

Or the hole we feel a need to fill may be more personal. To be human is to be interdependent, and to have needs for love, friendship, respect, emotional support and physical satisfaction. Any teacher, given the right conditions, can face a strong temptation to let our own desires take precedence over a student’s well-being. Yes, there are also diagnosable narcissistic sociopaths who commit abuse serially, deeply, and without remorse. They may make the headlines, especially if the abuse is sexual. But this doesn’t excuse the damage the rest of us may do by simply being inadequately aware of our power or our own clay feet.

Or the teacher’s need or hole could be deep-seated and possibly largely unconscious. We all have (in Jungian terms) “shadow” sides to our personalities–that is, the desires and behaviors we may not even be conscious of, or feel are dirty and try to deny. We all likely spend some time “spiritually bypassing.” Do we have the courage to face into our shadow? If not, do we at least have the courage to ask for help?

As a 65-year cis-woman with health issues, I’m probably not at high risk for engaging in sexual misconduct with a student. I’ve retired from a rewarding career which gave me some degrees of power and status, and I live comfortably well within my means. So I don’t particularly aspire to have my Zen practice give me power or money. I spent a couple years in therapy and have engaged in much self-reflection. So I feel fairly (though far from perfectly) emotionally mature  and competent. Does that mean I won’t misuse power in ways that harm students? I’ve thought a lot about this question.

My conscious mind didn’t get very far on it. But I have a very active dream life, and often in times of crisis or transition find insights arising while I sleep. As I thought about whether I could commit abuse of power, I had a series of dreams.

  • In the first dream, I related to one of my younger adult students as though they were my own adult child (who I don’t see often enough!).
  • In another, I acquiesced to the romantic overtures of a different student simply because he seemed to want it so much. My desire to be “nice” meant I didn’t want to cause him heartbreak.
  • It’s also the case that, while I am straight, I had assumed the student in that second dream was gay. This reminds me that even what I think of as a “safe” relationship could turn out unexpectedly otherwise!
  • Another dream confirmed that I have not lost my need for simple human touch.

Each dream pointed to a way I might harmfully redirect a one-on-one teaching situation away from what the student really needs.

Even the most careful teacher is likely, on occasion, to show their flaws and breach a boundary. It’s possible that this, if fairly mild, might be a feature rather than a flaw: At some point in the process of spiritual maturation, we need to overcome any initial idealization of, and over-reliance on, our teachers and learn to trust ourselves. If a teacher’s overstepping gives a student a gentle poke in the (emotional and spiritual) arm, sincerely apologizing may be enough to heal the relationship. But the possible helpfulness of small mistakes by no means excuses battering and bruising a student’s psyche or spirit, much less shoving a knife through their heart.

Learning about the importance of boundaries is an important first step teachers can take to try to minimize psychopompogenic harm.  Avoiding ego-inflation is another. To the extent we can find satisfaction of our very human needs for love, friendship, and so on outside our sangha, we become less likely to seek these from our students. Our sangha’s (new) teacher group is also exploring ways of looking into our “shadows” and issues of spiritual bypassing.

We also, fortunately, have a strong sangha and strong board that won’t let us get away with misuse and abuse. Why is that necessary? Next topic!

Previous in this series: Spiritual Teachers are Prone to Creeping Ego-Inflation

Next in this series: Self-Policing Doesn’t Work

Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a writer on gender, ethics, economics, ecology, and Zen; a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a Dharma Holder and Teaching Coordinator at the Greater Boston Zen Center; and mother of two grown children.

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