In Bending the Bow, I write about how great leaders are, in a way, magicians: they break the spell of the old way of seeing. They remove long-standing, preconceived ideas and make space for healthy new ideas to grow. They take away old concepts, and replace them with new inspirations. It is a kind of magic to be able to see a world that does not yet exist, and to paint that picture for others.
And that is how it is with great teachers. You see a teacher of some sort, and there is a kernel of truth or light that they hold. We are interested, there might be something in this for us, we are attracted. So we go to this teacher. There is some bliss, and there is often also the usual human dysfunctions that arise around a public figure. Who is responsible for this?
Do you notice how we are often very needy around teachers? How any unintegrated psycho-emotional things around our own relationship with authority are often revealed? We project all kinds of things onto these people. Rarely does an adored teacher, anywhere on earth, not have moments where the scrutiny of their disappointed acolytes or students brings them down, at least for a while. We are consistently surprised when our teachers are human. That one likes young women. That one can’t manage their money. That one takes many lovers, some married. That one is a glutton or is an addict or whatever…and then we say they are oh such hypocrites, oh such charlatans, oh such abusers…and we distance ourselves as we place the narrative into our preexisting mindset and biases. How is it that we know that all people are complex and perfectly imperfect, bosses and parents and pastors and lovers and politicians, too…yet the imperfection of the so-called guru or teacher still “shocks” us disproportionately?
Here’s what I’ve learned: it isn’t them, it is us. We do this to them, we do it when we give away our power in the first place.
A true teacher wants your freedom. They will tell you: Don’t follow me. Don’t join me. Don’t be part of my brand. Because following is a denial of your own power. Rely on the Self, as Emerson said. Your Self, capital S. Be Self-Referential. Remember who you are.
Conversely, try to be a student who holds onto the Self and gives the teacher freedom from expectations. When you go to a teacher, honor their study and effort, the years of building competence, by being a committed learner. Learn the teachings well enough to test them and see if they work in your own life. Take the practices they offer. Do them yourself over a period of time at home. If they work for you, pass them on, with attribution. If they don’t work, don’t carry them forward.
Don’t be extractive from your teacher: don’t want to get something, to be recognized, to be elevated, to belong, to be their favorite, to have their sex or loving gaze. You already belong. Love your teachers as friends and respect their competence, be generous of spirit with them, but don’t seek their approval. Don’t seek their initiation. Don’t look for the mother or father you wish you’d had. Seek to gain knowledge, the exchange that is inherent in the relationship.
If you choose to make an additional exchange, know why you are making the exchange. Even “guruseva”, where one serves other beings out of love, or selfless service, is often an entrainment into dominance hierarchy- and rarely is it selfless. You may not want compensation, but check yourself if there is not indeed something you do want overtly or secretly, and be accountable, whether it’s karmic points, self worth, or adoring glances. Yes help out, no matter where you are in the world, always help out, always do your part, make it a gifting economy….but check to see if you are expecting something in return. Somewhere in our deepest souls, we know our own manipulations…even small children know exactly what they are doing. If it is freely given, if it is a joy, then by all means give.
It is a tremendous gift to the teacher for you to be willing to be real with the teacher. Any public figure will absorb energy from those that follow or seek them out, they will enlarge their energy field, literally. As such, they are simultaneously at higher risk, and more vulnerable to attack. With this increased visibility, hidden aspects of their character will be revealed. The community can help a leader or teacher (at least one who is willing to accept the help) to stay anchored to the mission and true to themselves. True leaders will accept this by encouraging truth-telling in her or his community and team, which then acts as a check and balance as the teacher gains prominence. A good teacher is able to be vulnerable with his students and friends, as vulnerability is an essential ingredient for love.
Just because someone is amazing in some aspect of their life, doesn’t mean they are fully formed in others. So don’t expect them to be perfect.. but do expect some commitments to mutual respect, such as: They don’t bully their students or community. They can sustain themselves in conflict. They too have a circle of support to lean into when there is confusion. They make clear agreements. They keep their word. They can be accountable to their growth areas, and weaknesses. Because these are signs of respect and mutuality. A good teacher will respect you back, and if they don’t, then it is on you to reach out to clarify misunderstanding. If there is no willingness to converse, then to either be a full yes to the relationship anyway, or leave. Maybe their values are just different.
Don’t leave with anger, just with understanding. And hopefully with compassion, that they are human, and it was you who wanted them to be more than that. You who saw that there was a treasure in them, in their teachings, and were able to love them for that.
Beyond the teacher, good communities of practice- like good families, marriages or companies- don’t rely on a central charismatic leader- instead they are lateral. They love their teachers, but they hold organization and decision making together. And the best communities have clear conflict resolution processes, like the ZEGG forum, and deep listening skills, like nonviolent communication (NVC), and members who are willing to do their own work. These communities of practice love their teachers and elders, as reflections of divinity. They also trust themselves, and the inherent power in each being. The dominance hierarchy, self imposed or enforced, is an old model. The competence hierarchy is timeless.
Instead of being shocked in the next guru scandal, whatever that may be, I want to suggest a new way of being in the teacher student relationship, that place a responsibility on the student of being in their own full power. Stop the victim narrative. We hold personal responsibility to have stillness and equanimity in our own hearts, and to know when a teaching relationship is healthy for you, and when it isn’t.