By Dr. Marc Gafni – Originally Published in Response to a paper by the Integrales Forum Germany in 2011
Thank you for your kind invitation to comment on the Integrales Forum position paper in regard to teacher-student relations. First let me congratulate you on this paper, which serves to initiate this important conversation. This topic is a worthy one in need of urgent address on many levels. Let me also commend your excellent deployment of the Integral framework in discussing these issues. It is the use of the Integral framework that allows for this discussion to hold the necessary complexity, multiples perspectives, and nuance that it deserves.
In broad terms, I agree with your conclusions in terms of the need for some essential standards in regard to spiritual teachers. Clearly we are all aware of the most horrific abuses that take place in the context of some pre-personal cults, as well as of some of the more subtle forms of psychological manipulation, financial dishonesty and sexual abuse that take place in these same contexts under the fig leaf of the teacher-student relationship for the sake of the dharma. To protect the potential victim and shield the powerless from the whims of the powerful is a core obligation of any community.
At the same time, as you indicate in your paper, much discernment in needed in this conversation to assure that the teacher-student function is upheld. For indeed, without this teacher-student function, both the transmission of wisdom as well as the personal and collective enlightenment of the interior face of the cosmos would be severely impaired. The teacher-student function is essential for these evolutionary goals.
It is of course a truism that there is no great inter-subjective institution of culture without shadow potential. Sexuality is a case in point. Even though its shadow potential is more then apparent the overwhelming preponderance of contemporary wisdom traditions does not suggest rejecting sexuality. Rather, sexuality needs to be evolved, deepened and practiced with consciousness and care. Sexuality also needs to be practiced in a way that allow us access to the wild Eros and sacred abandon that makes sex not only delightful but a potentially important portal to enlightened practice, while offering a model for Eros and holiness in all the non-sexual dimensions of our lives. The same kind of cautions might be raised in regards to the teacher-student relationship. It is the teacher-student relationship, which, while fraught with potential peril, carries equal potential for the promise of profound transformation and spiritual evolution. Because this potent and important relationship is so often mis–understood in the fear-driven politically correct contexts that the discourse around teacher-student relationships takes place, it feels worthwhile to offer some initial thoughts on this topic from an Integral perspective.
I offer my thoughts on this not in the form of a formal essay but rather as a series of individual notes and discernments that I hope will offer some resonance for those interested in this important issue. I should also add that I am specifically addressing my comments to about the teacher-student relationship as it arises within an emergent postmodern and Integral context.
- 1 The Teacher-Student Relationship: Some Important Discernments
- 2 The Downfall of the Church and the Displacement of the Spiritual Teacher
- 3 Two Models of a Spiritual Teacher: The Grocer and the Artist
- 4 The Spiritual Teacher and Shadow in a Postmodern Context
- 5 Protecting Spiritual Teachers from Abuse
- 6 Two Models for the Teacher-Student Relationship: The Holy of Holies and the Dual Relationship
- 7 Unique Self and the Teacher-Student Relationship
The Teacher-Student Relationship: Some Important Discernments
The classic teacher-student relationship in much of the western spiritual world outside of the formal church was imported from the east. In these relationships the teacher held Absolute authority. This authority was in the best cases rooted in the enlightened realization of the teacher. This kind of Absolute authority brought blessings and rigor to many western students who were able to advance and deepen spiritually in ways that might have been impossible without both the authority and transmission of the teacher. However, two significant complications emerged with this model as it was deployed in western contexts. The first complication was that the teacher himself generally did not distinguish between the realms in which he appropriately held authority based on his level of realization, and other realms of his life where he may have been significantly less developed. In certain areas of life, the teacher often knew no more then his/her student, and at times knew significantly less than his/her student. An example of one teacher comes to mind who was profoundly advanced in his realization of the Absolute, but was also profoundly ignorant about issues of adoption. And yet, he would take a strong stance in his community against adoption even though he was ill-informed in regard to the facts of adoption. He claimed the same authority in relation to issues of adoption as he did on other matters of spiritual development.
The second more general challenge to the authority of the spiritual teacher is that a teacher may be much more developed in particular lines of development than others. Clearly, a serious teacher should have some significant attainment in a number of developmental lines beyond the narrow albeit critical line of enlightened realization. Yet, this is often not the case. Moreover, teachers are sometimes unaware of their different levels of attainment in different lines, which causes them to turn their own shortcomings into distorted teachings.
To further explicate on this issues, it also needs be noted that even within the upper left quadrant, where most spiritual teachers have significant attainment and therefore natural authority, discernments must be drawn between different teachers on two separate grounds. First, there is a difference in degree of attainment between teachers that is often vast and therefore there should also be a commensurately vast difference in the level of authority claimed by different teachers. Secondly, most genuine spiritual teachers specialize in a particular medicine, which they are able to offer in particularly powerful or transforming ways in certain contexts. One teacher may work well in the dream world, another at evolution beyond ego, a third at guiding vocation, a fourth at seeing the intellectual unfolding of great dharmaic maps, and a fifth who may hold potent access to the shakti of unwavering transformative love. Sometimes a teacher will hold two or even three of these awakened gifts, but it is very rare for any one teacher to hold all of them. Naturally, it is then incumbent on the teacher to be self-discerning in regard to the particular medicine he can dispense with authority, even as it is also incumbent on the student to engage in the same discernment from their perspective as a student. But the primary obligation is on the teacher not to overreach his or her genuine authority. This requires significant integrity and self-discipline on the part of the teacher.
This same principle of discernment held true in pre-modern spirituality through the different streams that existed in particular religious traditions. Each tradition had its own special medicine, which it was able to dispense with skill and authority. When the church overreached its area of expertise and began to claim spiritual authority beyond its natural purview of the upper left in matters such as government and science, the seeds were already planted for religion’s eventual downfall. Overreaching that specialized gnosis and authority is equally problematic for the church as it is with the spiritual teacher. It might be said that just as in pre-modernity, where the classical mythic membership church overreached its authority by claiming gnosis where they had none, the postmodern spiritual teacher has sometimes done the same. The spiritual teacher who has deployed old guru models in contemporary contexts, has more then once overreached and claimed authority beyond that which is true or appropriate. In integral terms, one might say that both the post-modern spiritual teacher and the pre-modern church held genuine wisdom in the upper left quadrant of reality, and both have sometimes used this authentic wisdom to claim inappropriate authority in the other three quadrants, including culture, science and politics. Sometimes this was done consciously in order to gain power, but many times this was done unconsciously by both the spiritual teacher and the church, both which had assumed that simply by virtue of their knowing the interior spaces of enlightenment they also had important knowing, and therefore authority, in the realms of culture, politics and science. But this was simply not the case.
The Downfall of the Church and the Displacement of the Spiritual Teacher
Modernity’s critique of the church demanded evidence for dogma, which was simply not available. Modernity’s critique pointed out the historical context for much of the church’s teaching, debunking that which had previously been blindly accepted as the word of God. This was important in that the overextended authority of the church was debunked and in its place the more natural arbiters of culture, science and political authority took their place. This shift expressed itself in the rise of democracy, the explosion of science, the evolutionary leaps in human rights, and the rise of the feminine and the dignity of the individual.
The problem was, however, that modernity and postmodernity threw out the baby with the bathwater. Instead of limiting the authority of the church to the upper left, spirit was rejected all together. The result is what Lewis Mumford called the “dis-qualification of the universe,” or turning the universe into a flatland. The core contexts of meaning and obligation were deconstructed with no edifice of the good, true and beautiful reconstructed in their place.
In a similar way, spiritual teachers operating in our contemporary context have been challenged by the best insights of modernity and postmodernity. Overreaching claims of authority on the part of the teachers have been largely rejected. Distinctions have been drawn between the authentic deep structures of the dharma and the surface structures of dharma rooted in cultural and psychological pre-modern levels of consciousness. Teachers who claimed dogmatic authority in realms beyond the upper left quadrant based on pre-modern assumptions have been rejected. Demands for transparency, democracy and accountability, which emerged from what has been called the pluralist “green” level of consciousness, clashed with the alternatively, purple, red and blue levels of consciousness, which were often the cultural context for the teacher’s original awakening.
What has happened, however, is that as with the appropriate rejection of the church’s overreach in modernity, the baby is again in danger of being thrown out with the bathwater when it comes to spiritual teachers. The essential transformative power and transmuting fire of the teacher-student relationship, which is often essential for the evolution of consciousness, is gradually being lost. The new generation of teachers emerging in there thirties and forties are eager to establish their politically and spiritually correct credentials. Words like transparency, facilitation, empowerment and mutuality are the buzzwords for spiritually correct respectability and acceptance in the liberal and progressive circles in which these spiritual teachers outside of the mainstream churches usually function.
Sadly, however, the wild love, the rigorous radical demands, and the audacious attacks on mediocrity launched with love by the authentic spiritual teacher have also been outlawed. The original creativity and holy demands of the teacher are being rejected by the student who wants to be coddled and validated by the teacher. As a result, the teacher fears to unfurl the full fierce grace of their transmission for fear of backlash, which appears in a variety of forms. The creative and holy audacity of the teacher who wants to offer healing and transformation is neutered the same way that the leading edge healing of contemporary doctors is neutered. Both teacher and doctor here fear lawsuits of malpractice. Indeed the legal definition of malpractice is when one practices beyond the “conventions of the community.” The conventional is institutionalized through fear, and the post conventional methods of healing, driven by love, are outlawed, sued, and even demonized.
It is this sense of the outrageous post conventional obligation of the spiritual teacher that is not fully articulated in your paper. Does this post conventional stance of the teacher have dangers? Of course it does. But as Chuang Tse wrote so long ago, “I come to speak dangerous words, I ask only that you listen dangerously.” The courageous interventions necessary by a leading-edge doctor or teacher to effect healing and transformation are almost by definition post–conventional and therefore fraught with danger for the student and the teacher alike.
Naturally I am not referring to the dangers of genuine abuse, which must be diligently guarded against. Any move by the teacher to regress the student from the dignity of the personal to the abandonment of personal autonomy inherent in the pre-personal must be studiously avoided. I think we all understand and agree on that point. At the same time, your precise, safe and sanitized description of the teacher-student relationship felt to me to be somewhat tepid.
Of course, we must protect the vulnerable student, and yet it is only in being vulnerable that genuine growth occurs. While the teacher must avoid demanding pre-personal obedience to the teacher, in the appropriate context the teaching might demand the transpersonal surrender to love, to the evolution of consciousness, and to radical uncompromising integrity. That kind of surrender is the hallmark of the truly transpersonal. If the spiritual master does not invite and even demand that the student get beneath and beyond their personality, then the master will have failed the student. The failure to distinguish between the pre-personal and the transpersonal is precisely what we call, in Integral theory, a pre- trans fallacy. This failure of discernment cheats both the teacher and student. The teacher cannot fulfill his/her vocation and the student cannot avail him or herself to the urgently necessary transmuting fire of the trans-personal.
In some sense it might even be said that it is the job of spirit to “seduce” the student. The great teacher mediates the seduction of spirit to the student because being seduced by spirit is one of the great realizations of consciousness. And by seduction I don’t mean sexual seduction. As my teacher Mordechai Lainer of Izbica taught 150 years ago: ‘we are all seduced; greatness is to know whom you can trust to seduce you. It was the greatness of biblical Joshua that he was sufficiently evolved to trust Moses to seduce him’. Here we need to distinguish between two forms of seduction. The first, as defined by psychotherapist Jim Maddow-Shepard, is the making of a promise by the seducer that cannot and will not be kept, in order to further the egoic gain of the seducer. This is unholy seduction of which we must all be wary. The second form is what we might term “holy seduction.” This is when the seducer invites and even demands that the seduced one move beyond the boundaries of his or her coiled and contracted ego grasping into a realization of their own higher and deeper authenticity and freedom.
In both forms of seduction, the seducer induces a loss of control on the part of the one seduced. But here again a crucial distinction must be drawn. If the student is giving up control in the pre-personal sense, that is to say losing the essential control inherent to all personal freedom and dignity, then we are faced with a regressive ethical violation on the part of the teacher that should not be countenanced. If, however, the surrender involves the uncoiling of the controlling mechanisms of grasping pettiness and fear that so often drives the distorted human personality then this surrender is quite a good thing indeed. This is precisely the distinction between pre-personal surrender and transpersonal transcendence and the ability to make this distinction means everything on the spiritual path.
The pre-personal community manifests as a cult. At its most depraved, this might show up as the Jim Jones or Charles Manson cults. The transpersonal community is the authentic sangha of committed seekers joined together by the vision of a higher awakening. At its best, this shows up as the enlightened community of sincere seekers who live in communities of service and grace, such as those exemplified in ashrams, monasteries, yeshivas, and other esoteric groups throughout history.
Two Models of a Spiritual Teacher: The Grocer and the Artist
Another way to approach the issue of the nature of the teacher-student relationship is to ask on what archetype we are modeling the teacher function? Here I would posit a number of potential models of the teaching function, which each suggest a different relationship to the student and different codes of conduct for both teacher and student engagement.
The first distinction I would suggest along these lines is between the grocer and artist model of teaching. Is the teacher a grocer or an artist? If the teacher is a grocer then his job is to provide the students with the core condiments essential to the student’s basic nourishment and well-being. One expects the grocer to be safe. The goal of the grocer is what Ken Wilber has referred to as translative spirituality. The grocer tends to the student at the level of consciousness at which the student resides, providing essential services and comforts of spirit. One certainly would not want one’s grocer to be dangerous. Indeed the job of the grocer is to insure your survival with basic necessities and safety. The grocer intends to sustain you in ways that allow you to overcome your vulnerability.
If, however, one were to adopt the artist archetype as the model for the teacher-student encounter, then the quality of the relationship changes entirely. The job of the artist is not necessarily to comfort. The job of the artist is to show us something that we could not see ourselves. The artist seeks to expose our vulnerability in order to provoke us to a higher truth or deeper realization. The artist needs to find a way past the character armor of culture and conditioning in order to open us up to levels of aesthetic pleasure and insight that we could not access in our conventional ways of seeing. The artist seeks to “unfurnish our eyes” so that we can feast in the pleasure of arts revelation. The pleasure that is the aim of the artist is very different then the comfort which is the goal of the grocer.
We tend to identify comfort and pleasure as synonymous goods of existence. But pleasure and comfort are very different. Indeed the definition of moral decadence is often the belief that the opposite of pain is pleasure. It is not. The opposite of pain is comfort. One can avoid pain his entire life and never taste pleasure. Pleasure does not avoid pain, but rather embraces and even transmutes pain. When pain is avoided, pleasure cannot be achieved; at best, comfort is gained. While there is a great deal to be said for comfort, one must always beware of becoming comfortably numb. It is the role of the spiritual teacher, who is an artist, to puncture the deadening comforts of the ego in order to awaken the student to the inner depth of their own profundity and originality. While the grocer seeks to comfort the afflicted, the artist seeks to afflict the comfortable.
The spiritual teacher who is an artist differs, however, in at least one notable way from the classical artist. The classical artist is for the most part driven by the muses of creativity. The ecstatic urgency that marks their creative gesture is animated by the Eros of original emergence, which courses through the artist. The spiritual teacher/artist by contrast is motivated by an almost unbearable love. This love for the student, for the divine potential seeking desperately to realize itself in the Unique Self of the student, moves the teacher/artist to deploy virtually every means at his disposal to wake the student out of the numbing slumber of egoic mediocrity. The radical goal of the Eros of love that moves through the teacher seeks, almost desperately, to melt the knots of unlove that live in the student. Sometimes the knots are melted through loving embrace, at other times the knots are only melted by searing fire.
The difference between these two models for the teacher is enormous in many respects. Take the issue of anger for example. It would make little sense and indeed be quite rattling if your grocer became angry with you. Who needs to go to a grocer who angrily berates you? However, it would not be out of character for the teacher/artist to on occasion invoke prophetic anger to challenge the bulwarks of the ego. This form of anger does not well up from the personality of the teacher but from a deeper well of love and realization. The difference between these two forms of anger is so vast that they can barely be held in the same word.
It is of course possible for one teacher to move between both models or to find a higher integration of the models. The teacher may speak in both the grocer and the artist voice. But whether these voices show up in one teacher, or as the dominant voice in different teachers, both voices must be recognized and they cannot be expected to sound the same or to have the same effect on their listeners.
There is a holy paradox in the teacher-student relationship modeled on the artist archetype that must embrace autonomy and surrender even as it is lined with radical gentleness and fierce grace. It was this sense of paradox that I found missing from the otherwise excellent paper of the Integrales forum. For the Integrales writers, the sense of mystery, the messiness, the insoluble paradox and magic of the teacher-student encounter seems to have been somewhat lost, effaced and sanitized by the clear-cut and scientific guidelines for evaluation that their article provided. So while I agree to virtually all of the guidelines proposed, I think we would do well to hold with honor the sacred alchemy of the teacher-student relationship that is not easily reducible to guidelines and formulas, even as such are necessary and even desirable.
The Spiritual Teacher and Shadow in a Postmodern Context
The next issue in need of addressing is the level of attainment of the teacher, or put differently, the teacher’s relationship to shadow.
There seem to be two dominant positions on this issue, neither of which hold the complexity of the teacher’s full reality. One position holds spiritual teachers to a standard of perfection that is essentially unreachable by almost any human being. The result is that the teacher is forced to lie and hide their shadow, only to inevitably fall from the pedestal of projection and often with a painful crash for all involved. The second position, which comes in reaction to the first, suggests that the teacher is pretty much just like everyone else. He or she may have a specific teaching to share or a particular awakening to facilitate, but the core of their attainment is not substantively more advanced then that of their students. In this model, as long as the teacher is an effective facilitator who regularly owns shadow,all is well.
I would like to suggest what I believe to be a more evolved vision of the teacher that transcends and includes these first two models. I believe that an authentic spiritual teacher should have some genuine level of attainment beyond that of his or her students. At the same time, a genuine level of attainment does not make the teacher immune to shadow. Therefore, genuine and fearless engagement with shadow is an essential requirement for every human being—no exceptions. It is not by accident that the old biblical model of the spiritual teacher, including Abraham, Moses, Miriam, David and many more, were all teachers presented by the Bible as figures with profound attainment as well as genuine shadow.
Having said that, we must be very careful not to let the genuine shadow of teachers serve as a fig leaf for abusive attacks on the teacher by their students. Here, a number of spiritually incorrect discernments need to be clearly made. First, very few spiritual teachers are abusive. Spiritual teachers for the most part are people of genuine goodness, insight and concern. While they may vary wildly in their level of attainment, the effectiveness and depth of their teaching, and even their essential wisdom and intelligence, spiritual teachers are for the most part a group of beautiful and good people. Second, just as there are spiritual teachers who engage in abuse, so too there are spiritual students who engage in abuse. The student can be just as abusive to the teacher as the teacher to the student, and often because the student is less developed, the student is more prone to abusive behavior of myriad kinds.
Mariana Caplan (my partner and the mother of my son), who has spent much of her adult life studying, writing and teaching about the teacher-student relationship, has recently written an essay on one virulent form of student abuse. Caplan discusses the very serious and not uncommon phenomenon of false complaints leveled by students against teachers. As Wilehm Reich implicitly points out, one of the driving forces in false attacks on people who incarnate life force, as well as the tendency to jump on the bandwagon of abusive attacks against a powerful teacher, is a dynamic which he refers to as the “murder of Christ.” Gurdjeiff referred to a similar dynamic when he talked about the “force of denial.” Both Reich and Gurdjeiff were talking about the energetic force that lives within us and seeks to kill life force in others. The greater the life force, the more it threatens our smallness. The “little man” described by Reich cannot tolerate the life force that challenges his smallness and so he moves, individually or in a mob, “to murder Christ,” to castrate the generative life force that reminds him of his own impotence. It is only by degrading the daemon of the teacher to a demon that the “little man” feels safe. The “little man” might be the student or he might be the colleagues of the teacher who manipulate the students in order to “take down” a colleague who they unconsciously feel takes up their space and attracts people who would otherwise be their students.
This general tendency to murder life force has a new bedfellow in more then one contemporary spiritual scandal. The bedfellow is what has been termed by some courageous feminist writers as “victim feminism.” While a fuller exploration of victim feminism is well beyond the purview of these brief comments, it cannot be ignored as a catalytic force in some of the more dramatic spiritual teacher scandals. The core axiom of victim feminism is that women are generally victims and men are more often then not abusers. This is usually coupled with an implicit or explicitly negative evaluation of heterosexual sex. The weak feminine is generally regarded as being victimized or abused by the strong masculine. This mythic narrative, which paradoxically demeans women and demonizes men, lies at the core of much of the teaching curriculum in Women’s Studies departments in the United States and to some extent throughout the western world. This narrative has played a major role in the unjust way that many false stories of sexual abuse have been handled. Warren Farrell in The Myth of Male Power, Christina Hoff Sommers the Death of Feminism and Laura Kipnis in The Female Thing Cathy Young in Ceasefire in the Gender Wars, and Daphne Patai in Heterophobia, have all documented some of these stories of false accusations.
Protecting Spiritual Teachers from Abuse
All of this brings me to the next issue, which is our need to protect teachers from the abuse of students. I believe this deserves more attention in your presentation. Protection of the teacher is a vital need for a number of reasons in a post-modern context where the teacher is often under constant attack.
First, let me offer some general backdrop to these remarks about the protection of the teacher. In general, the concern of the emergent postmodern context has been with justice. The modern and premodern worlds both suffered severely with issues of fairness and justice. Even when there was an ethic of fairness it was generally limited to an ethnocentric context. In a postmodern context, fairness in society extends to all races and all genders and is the cornerstone of what has been called the postmodern fairness revolution. The cornerstone of this postmodern move is to protect the dis-enfranchised and to give voice to those whom have been stripped of place by the oppressive policies of the powerful. This is, in many ways, an enormously positive unfolding of evolutionary progress.
For a long period of time in the teacher-student relationship the teacher was the person in the primary position of power. After all, he or she ran the community, was the subject of deference and honor, and wielded significant authority. This was true both in the context of spiritual societies and in formal religions. The teacher wielded both the institutional authority and the authority of spirit. This was also the case in academic contexts in which the student needed the teacher to complete their academic degree and the teacher was vested with the backing and authority of the academy. In these former contexts, the courageous position of integrity was to take up the cause of the powerless student. Students are now empowered both by a shift in culture in which the post modern winds have deconstructed the automatic authority of the teacher, and by new set of laws which wonderfully protect students against potential psychological and sexual abuse by the teacher. All of this is good news. There is, however, an important by product of this shift that has enormously dangerous implications for the teacher-student function. The axis of power has shifted so dramatically that it is now the teacher who is dis-empowered. In this new context, the mere leveling of a complaint against a teacher can have potentially disastrous implications.
A student may spend twelve years with a teacher during which they receive an enormous body of teaching and transmission. The student may become disaffected for any one of many reasons and then decide to leave.
If a student or group of students decides to accuse the teacher of manipulation and psychological abuse and call their former spiritual home a cult, the teacher is often naturally assumed to be abusive, manipulative and the leader of a cult. The teacher may find his or her name appearing on the internet listed under cult watch websites. The teacher may lose funding that is essential to the continuation of their good works or they may even be deprived of their basic livelihood. The teacher may, merely on the basis of a complaint, be subject to enormously unfair suffering. There is no forum for due process, nor for the investigation of motives and webs of relationships that may have led to the complaints. There also isn’t any mechanism in place for evolutionary healing or forgiveness.
The same issues arise if the teacher and adult student engaged in a fully mutually responsible adult sexual relationship. Let’s assume that the teacher is one who supports the full autonomy of his or her students. If an adult female woman initiates a sexual engagement with her teacher and for some reason later finds herself hurt or disappointed, for either real reasons or as a function of her or his own hypersensitive narcissistic tendencies, the student sometimes tragically and aggressively adopts the stance of powerless victim and makes false complaints against the teacher. This may happen for a host of different possible motivations, which are beyond the purview of this essay but are discussed by Mariana Caplan in her new book.
If the student or group of students are corrupt and register a complaint, the essential act of registering the complaint may cause immense destruction to the life of the teacher and his or her family and teaching, while at the same time causing relatively little damage and much possible gain to the student in the form of acclaim, attention and even material gain. Clearly then, the balance of power has at least equalized between teacher and student and has probably shifted in favor of the student. Given that reality, one who takes a public stand of protecting the accusing student is merely taking the easy and popular public stance. This is the case because the public culture around these issues in spiritual circles is heavily influenced by the vicitmology that suffuses what has been termed the “mean green meme” of consciousness. The representatives of this level of consciousness are the primary consumers of spiritual teachings and teachers. That is why it requires far more audacity, integrity and courage to take a public stand and demand a board of inquiry to protect the potentially abused teacher. Victimology of course does not mean there are not real victims. The tragedy of victimology is that the imposter, usually for motives driven by malice and other less then noble impulses, dons the sacred garb of the authentic victim and hijacks the voice of genuine powerlessness.
Groupthink is always dangerous and always stands as the counter force to genuine spiritual evolution and enlightenment. The group think of the mean green meme is populated by a number of cultural forces that all come together to assume that the teacher, particularly the male teacher, is the oppressor, and that the student, often the female student, is the victim. These cultural forces include postmodern deconstructionism, victim feminism, and the general anti big picture world view of secularism. All of these are the shadow expressions of the pluralistic multicultural meme of consciousness that resist all authority and seeks to undermine any cannon so as to level all differences. These energies too often move to “deconstruct” the teacher, and in the process ignore the basic ethics of due process, including collecting the facts, hearing both sides, as well as simple integrity and compassion.
One sure sign of knowing whether an injustice is being perpetrated against a teacher is if they are being demonized. A teacher who was just yesterday beloved by his student or students, and the very next day is demonized by the same student or group of students, is likely being victimized in the worst way. Often, the students who demonize their teachers are adult students with significant financial earning power and powerful personalities who have spent ten or fifteen years with the same teacher. When a student becomes disaffected with their teacher, they need a way to understand and justify their change of heart. This is clearly a psychological and spiritual task that requires significant depth, nuance and love from both the teacher and student. When those qualities are unavailable in the teacher or student, the result is often to demonize the teacher. Demonization is the opposite of compassion and acceptance of paradox, and it is a fairly accurate indicator that a kind of splitting is taking place and that the teacher is being subject to some form of injustice. Demonization has always been the weapon of oppressors.
Two more notes are in order in this general stream of thought related to the protection of the teacher. The first is in regard to the Internet. The Internet has become, in its shadow expression, a yellow tabloid sheet. There is some marked cultural resemblance to the coliseum of Rome where controversial spiritual teachers were more then once fed to the lions in order to entertain the masses. There is an excellent book by Harold Solove called The Future of Reputation, which unpacks the virtual attack on virtue with particular depth and insight. Simply put, the issue is as follows. Any person, no matter what their internal level of development, integrity or ethics, has the ability to post a series of defamatory blogs about anyone else. Furthermore, because the Internet naturally links both authentic fighters for freedom, as we saw recently in Egypt, as well as the legions of broken and hateful persons that are sadly locked in ego, consumed by all the poisons that the Buddha warned against, it is easy to link people together in the launch of a group attack against any teacher. The blogger or website doing the attacking is not subject to any actionable libel laws whatsoever. The few laws that do exist are virtually impossible to action and can in any case be avoided by hosting the questionable material on an offshore site. Hate sites of various forms and guises as well as tabloid like gossip sites all feed the prurient hunger of the public that is eager to take down anyone with life force who exerts significant leadership. Think of the public’s obsession with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky’s affair if you want an example of prurience. Wilhelm Reich speaks of sources of this prurience insightfully in his excellent book, Listen Little Man. Joseph Berke, the leading student of R.D. Laing, wrote a masterpiece on the psychological underpinnings of these dynamics in his 1,000-page book, Malice Through a Looking Glass.
But whatever the dynamics, the facts are clear. In the old world you were held accountable for public attacks on a person, particularly if they were false. In the world of the Internet, particularly with its malicious underbelly, no evidence is required, no fair hearing takes place, and no potential for resolution or healing is put in place. Rather, anyone with rudimentary web optimization skills can enter the space of any public figure, including teachers, launch vicious attacks and then slide away into the night of non-accountability and even anonymity. There are virtually no consequences for the attacker other then of course a loss of integrity, virtue and spiritual as well as moral decency.
The last issue I will address in this vein, in terms of the teacher, is transparency. Here a couple of distinctions are in order. It is clearly the case that to teach one standard of behavior and then to engage in another is not acceptable. This is particularly reprehensible when one behaves in the exact opposite way of one’s own teaching. The archetype of the fundamentalist preacher who rails against homosexuality as he is having gay encounters comes to mind, as well as the meditation teacher who preaches equanimity while being a closet rageoholic. This contradiction also shows up in the teacher who stands for integrity but runs a mafia-like operation in his or her internal scene. These stark contradictions between public and private shout out, and the lack of transparency about who the teacher really is will almost surely shatter the hearts of many students. Such a lack of transparency cannot be morally countenanced.
Having said that, this does not mean that the green meme value of transparency is an Absolute God. It is not. Transparency, like any other value, is a partial value that must be in natural and dynamic tension with other competing values. The demand for utter transparency by all teachers levels, or at least effaces, the critical distinction between public and private, between the esoteric and the exoteric. It is a distinction that has rightly been a cornerstone of spiritual teaching for at least a thousand years.
Not everything that every teacher does is fully communicable outside of the private context or inner circle. No serious teacher that I know would like every private engagement with their inner circle of students to be made public. A private engagement has depth, nuance and context, and takes into account the history and inner nature of the participants involved in the encounter, particularly their respective levels of consciousness. Remove this critical contextual frame and share the external facts of any intense private encounter between teacher and student, or anyone else for that matter, and you will guarantee a lack of understanding, distortion or worse. The inner quality-tone of an experience is often incommunicable after the experience, even by those who participated in the exchange, let alone by those who knew nothing of it. This is particularly true when the event or encounter in question is communicated by those who have particular agendas to slant or spin the encounter in negative ways. All of this to say that we would do well not to fully level the distinction between public and private in our stampede to worship at the idol of transparency.
Two Models for the Teacher-Student Relationship: The Holy of Holies and the Dual Relationship
At this point I want to engage in an initial and tentative exploration of two new models for the teacher-student relationship. I will refer to these two new models as the Holy of Holies model and the Dual Relationship model.
I developed the Holy of Holies model in my work with my inner circle of students over the years and it is only recently coming into full flowering and form. As we have already discussed above, there are gifts of transmission and spirit that can only be given from within the hierarchal context of the classical teacher-student relationship. I want to state this point even more clearly to say that in the tantric traditions of Kashmir Shaivism and Kaula tantracism, there was an implicit recognition of what we now refer to in the Integral world as the Three Faces of God. The three faces are essentially the three perspectives through which the divine appears in the world: first person, second person and third person. First person might be the realization of “tat tvam asi”, thou art that, the supreme identity of your own awareness with the Absolute Consciousness. Third Person might be the face of God that we see in the great systems of knowing and the great wonders of nature. Second person might be God in search of man; the divine revelation in which God initiates and invokes.
However, Tantric Shaivism, Tibetan Buddhism and other mystical traditions teach us that the grace of the second person God is also revealed in the practice of Guru Yoga. In this practice, the guru literally incarnates the perfection of divinity. Radical commitment to, service and love of the Guru, as well as the willingness to surrender personal ego to follow the guidance of the guru, is a profound path to enlightenment. Guru yoga, as Ken Wilber has pointed out many times, is one of the most powerful roads to enlightenment and a primary mode of relation to God in second person. Now, as we have already pointed out above, this modality suffers from some profound potential weaknesses, which make it vulnerable to abuses. Said directly, the Guru may not be worthy or even enlightened, and even if he or she is enlightened in the sense of the realization of their true nature or even Unique Self, they may still be profoundly underdeveloped in other lines of development, be they psychological, psychosexual, moral or even cognitive.
Alternatively, the teacher may have genuine periods of inspiration in which they are channeling the grace of heaven, combined with periods in which they may be good and wise human beings, but they are still essentially ‘ordinary’ human beings. During inspired moments of teaching, they are actually being lived as the radical incarnation of spirit, which lies at the heart of the guru yoga version of the teacher-student relationship. To be self-revelatory for a moment, this latter situation characterizes my teaching. I try to hold a steady love and wisdom in my teaching to the best of my ability at all times. There are really great days of teaching and some solid but not so great teaching days. Neither the great days nor the more average days, however, incarnate the guru position. But there is a third modality of teaching that comes forth at times, purely through grace, which I have come to call the holy of holies. In this modality, a different level of spirit often moves within me. There is very often a direct inspiration and grace in which I feel spirit moving and speaking clearly and directly through me. It lasts for a specific period of time and then is over.
With my private students, we meet regularly in the sacred confidential container of the Holy of Holies. It is not a place for idle chatter or banter. It is not a place of merely dharma or guidance. Rather, it is the inside of the inside—a place in which I am able for a limited time to channel the second person of God. Then it is over and I revert to being a teacher in the much more limited way that most teaching takes place. Once I step out of the Holy of Holies I have no more spiritual authority then any other wisdom teacher. But in the Holy of Holies, when spirit is flowing in the way that it sometimes does, the student should listen because there is an authentic disclosure of spirit which is not available in the ordinary, even if insightful, discourse of the teacher.
What this delineated space of the Holy of Holies allows us to do is retain the sacred power of Guru Yoga, but within the limited container of these certain sacred moments. Neither the teacher nor the student should attempt to extend the authority of the holy of holies beyond its natural duration. As my teacher taught, “the teacher is responsible not to dance after the ecstasy is gone.” The teacher needs to be discerning and rigorously honest in knowing when he is and is not in Holy of Holies. However, both the teacher and student need delight and honor the Holy of Holies as a container in which authentic revelation can take place.
The second model that I want to briefly discuss is paradoxically even more evolved then the Holy of Holies model. This is the Dual Relationship model, which I experience with a number of students in my inner circle. In this model, the teacher remains the teacher when he or she is wearing the teaching mantle. At these times, the formal hierarchy of respect and authority obtains between teacher and student. In this aspect of the relationship, the teacher may sometimes access the grace of the Holy of Holies through their transmission in the role of the wise teacher. Whichever the case, the classic asymmetrical teacher-student relationship remains in place. At other times, however, when the teacher is not teaching, the teacher and student engage in the mutuality of friendship. This is where the teacher-student hierarchy falls away. In this other mode the teacher and student are simply friends, or perhaps co-workers in a project, with all of the mutuality, simplicity, and complexity that comes with friendship. I say that this model is more evolved because it requires a highly evolved teacher and a highly evolved student to navigate seamlessly between these two modalities of teacher and friend.
In this sense, I would call this model post-conventional. It is both more promising and more dangerous then the conventional model.[i] One of the dangers is that the student may not know how to return the teacher to their teaching function and thereby can lose huge gifts that the teacher can only transmit from within that teaching function. The student may not know how to hold the teacher in proper regard after having shared the vulnerability and pain of the teacher during moments of intimate emotional contact within their friendship. The teacher, on the other hand, may so yearn for contact and friendship that they fail to realize the full attainment and responsibility of their teacher role. To know how to wear and then take off the teacher mantle requires a profound measure of enlightenment and grace.
Unique Self and the Teacher-Student Relationship
At this point, I would like to turn to a new but related issue: that of Unique Self and the teacher-student relationship.
As many of you know, I have spent the last several years unpacking what I call Unique Self enlightenment. Let me share in a few short words what I mean by Unique Self. Unique Self is not merely ego or personality, it is the essence that lies beneath and beyond your personality. More precisely, it is the personal face of essence. It is the unique God-spark living in you and as you. Your Unique Self is the infinite love intelligence, which is all that is—living in you, as you, and through you. It is the perspective of your enlightenment. Your Unique Perspective is sourced beyond any and all social, cultural and psychological conditioning. Classic enlightenment is what I call evolution beyond the exclusive identification with ego and the realization of ones True Nature, which is sometimes called True Self. The New Enlightenment of Unique Self is a momentous leap beyond classical enlightenment. In Unique Self enlightenment, you realize that your enlightenment has a perspective. Your perspective has infinite value and dignity and is both the source and purpose of your existence. I have written about this in other places and mention it here in these few sentences because of the implications of this integral evolutionary understanding of enlightenment for the teacher-student relationship.
The Unique Self-teaching has two major implications in the spiritual context of teacher-student relationships. When a teacher gives his students only impersonal or cosmic love, even when it is genuine, the student cannot truly grow. It is personal love that releases the contraction of ego. When the teacher sees the student merely as a seeker whose ego longs for release, something of vital importance is lost in the teacher-student relationship. The student doesn’t need to be coddled by the teacher, yet it is absolutely essential for the student to be seen and valued uniquely by the teacher. This is an essential human need. This is what it means to be loved. When this personal love occurs, a deep place in the student begins to stir. The student has been seen and therefore their self-contraction begins to uncoil. Their ego relaxes its grasping grip. The Unique Self of the student begins to emerge though genuine contact with the Unique Self of the teacher, which elicits the Unique Self of the student, and vice versa. The ability to make contact and be intimate or not is the essential distinction between Unique Self and Ego. Unique Self can make contact, Ego cannot. Many teachers trapped in ego fail to make contact and therefore keep their students trapped in ego as well, even if their professed goal is to evolve the student beyond ego to True Self. .
When the substance of one Unique Self touches the substance of another Unique Self, contact is made. Contact is a touching without ego boundaries and yet without the loss of the unique individuation of being. One is not ‘being in the past’ but it is totally ‘present in the now.’ Presence meets Presence. Both sides have personal history. Both sides of the contact are intensely personal, but neither side is attached to personal history.
When a teacher denies Unique Self by confusing it with egoic uniqueness, and thus views the goal of enlightenment as being the realization of Oneness with ground of being, the result is always apparent in the student of that teaching. The student may be bright and articulate, they may say all the right things and look the right way, but at some core level we cannot make contact with them. We get this uneasy feeling and we aren’t quite sure why. Images of the old movie the Stepford Wives comes to mind. In this movie, the men of Stepford consider their wives to be nagging, troublesome egoic, and generally underdeveloped, so the men kill their wives and replace them, in the same body, with wise, wonderful, devoted, mega-sexy, compliant Stepford Wives. The male teacher in the guise of husband often kills the Unique Self by mistaking it for the ego. The authentic divine feminine in both teacher and student is also therefore killed. What then emerges is the student who is a perfect, appropriate, articulate and clean-cut Stepford Wife—but there is something essentially effaced.
It is because of this that the teacher is obligated to give his students radically personal love, which is the honoring and recognition of the Unique Self of the student. The recognition of the student’s Unique Self releases the student’s contraction of ego. Personal love always releases the contraction of ego. Personal contact is the joyous essence of being. It can solve world conflicts and create the intimacy that makes life worth living. When we feel that genuine contact has been made, we have the delightful experience of our Unique Self being received and witnessed. The process of being seen, in and of itself evolves us; it invites us into our fullest majesty and reveals our inner splendor. Unique Self offers a quality of presence which shows up when the ego is set aside, even if temporarily, and our deeper being and becoming emerges in all of it’s resplendent beauty.
The second implication of Unique Self in the teacher-student relationship is that it acknowledges the natural limitation of the authority of the teacher. The Unique Self teaching illuminates this limitation particularly when it is contrasted with other more impersonal constructs of Enlightenment. If one experiences that the awakening of self beyond ego is the awakening of an activated and engaged “impersonal” Authentic Self, then the teacher’s authority is naturally greater then it might be to a student who experiences the awakening beyond ego as True Self plus ontological perspective, which equals Unique Self. If the goal is impersonal Enlightenment, then the teacher who is more realized then the students in their Absolute awakening might naturally assume a powerfully authoritarian approach towards the students. The authority of the teacher is rooted in him or her having a profoundly higher degree of Enlightenment then the student. If this authority is exercised with integrity, then this may be for the benefit of the student. If the authority were exercised in a corrupt or demonic manner, then this relationship would clearly not be of benefit to the student. The potential shadow of the impersonal in the teacher-student context may therefore be stated as an excessive authority exercised inappropriately. If, however, the core teaching being used is that of Unique Self, then even if the teacher has natural authority based on a higher degree of realization then student, the teacher’s authority will none-the-less be limited. While the teacher may have a higher level of realization of True Self then the student, by definition the teacher cannot have a higher level of realization of the Unique Self of the student for the very reason that the unique perspective of the student is not available to the teacher. It may well be the case that the realization of the teacher enables him to see and point to the Unique Self of the student more clearly then the student himself. However, this pointing out of the Unique Self of the student by the teacher must always be held with humility because the teacher realizes that while his experience of True Self fully exhausts and transcends that of the student, the same cannot be said for Unique Self. There is an intimate dimension of Unique Self that can never be penetrated by the teacher; hence, the authority of the teacher is naturally limited. The ultimate authority of the student derives from her authorship of his/her own story, which can never be plagiarized by the teacher.
Unique Self is important because personal contact is the joyous essence of Being. Personal contact can solve world conflicts and create the intimacy that makes life worth living. When you feel genuine contact has been made, you have the delightful experience of your Unique Self being received and witnessed. As in quantum physics, the process of being seen, in and of itself, evolves us, invites us to our fullest majesty, and reveals our inner splendor.
Uniqueness is not a concept! Unique Self is a quality of presence that shows up when the ego is set aside, even temporarily, and our deeper being and becoming emerges in all of its resplendent beauty. When someone shows up in Unique Self, we are aroused to love them and are intensely desirous of being loved by them. This is the personal relationship with Jesus Christ that so many sectors of Christianity understand so profoundly. It is this personal relationship with God that is also so derided by New Age teachers and even more sophisticated dharma thinkers because they are caught in the impersonality of so much mis-understood Eastern teaching.
In conclusion, it is my intention and prayer that all of these reflections, while not definitive, will at least open the conversation to a more paradoxical, compassionate and loving place. We live in a world that is in desperate need of passionately committed teachers and students. This is probably the most vital modality we have for the transmission of spirit in it’s full ethos and etos. All of us are charged with a post postmodern evolutionary integral obligation to develop the teacher-student relationship in a way the incorporates the best insights and technologies of the pre-modern, modern and postmodern epochs.
[i] While sexual intimacy in the context of a dual relationship between teacher and student, when specific contexts and conditions are met, may well be appropriate and ethical it also involves a great deal of potential dangers. This point was well made by Ken Wilber in a recorded dialogue at the German Integrales forum in 2010, and has been made by numerous feminimst writers including bell hooks, Christina Hoff Sommers, Laura Kipnis, Daphne Patai and many others. I discuss this issue in my article, “Spiritually Incorrect, Sex Ethics and Injury,” see marcgafni.com. As I, and all of the aforementioned writers point out, sexual intimacy between teacher and student may also potentially endanger both the teacher and the student. It requires a particularly evolved student and a particularly evolved teacher to successfully navigate this territory. In this sense, one might argue that if the Unique Self teaching is to be lived out in its entirety, it requires a particular kind of student and teacher whom are able to hold the complexities of dual or multiple relationships without falling into the classical egoic traps. This is rare, for all people are geniuses at self-deception. It is for this reason that I generally recommend not engaging sexual relations between the student and teacher. The exceptions to this rule are in the realm of the post-conventional, and therefore by definition need to be looked at individually and cannot be taught in public articles or teachings.
Evaluation of claims of either excessive intimacy and/or excessive authority require careful case by case investigation which examines both the goodness and potential shadow of the teacher as well as the goodness and potential shadow of the student. Sometimes (but obviously not always) the dynamic at play is that the teacher profoundly believes a certain kind of post-conventional contract is in play between him or her and the student, and this is indeed the case at least for a time, in some cases. However, at some point, as a result of alienation in some form, the student’s ego contracts and he or she reverts to conventional or even pre-conventional consciousness. At that point, the student will often retroactively and wrongly interpret the relationship with the teacher through a conventional or even pre-conventional prism—which is the source of many false claims of abuse and often engender significant pain and damage to all concerned.