How Good Spiritual Teachers Go Bad

The following is based on the transcript of a video I did a while back. I cleaned it up and rewrote a lot of it to make it sound more like a piece of writing.

I want to talk about why good spiritual teachers go bad. This subject is really interesting to me. 

In the world of commercial spirituality, there are people who are basically just hucksters. They have nothing to offer. They have no insights into anything. They just parlayed a good speaking game and some acting skill into trashy spirituality. They’re snake oil salesmen who know full well that there’s nothing to any of what they’re selling. Those guys don’t interest me very much.

There is another very different phenomenon that interests me a whole lot more. I see a lot of people who appear to me to have probably had an initial deep experience that could be called awakening or kensho or Satori or whatever their tradition calls that sort of experience. They’re not phonies, in other words. Something genuine actually happened to them. Whatever that something was could be debated. But they aren’t just making it up or pretending. For them, it was real.

Yet somehow they ended up going from being somebody who genuinely had something really valuable and real to offer, to being just kind of a commercial hack who doesn’t really have anything to offer except their own self-aggrandizement. And often they crash and burn in spectacular fashion.

And I often wonder, how does that happen? 

I think I may have a unique perspective on how this might happen. That’s because I’m kind of at this weird middle-low level of it. I’ve got several books out that sit on the shelves in Barnes & Noble stores all over the country, not getting bought because they’re on the bottom shelf and they have weird covers. Well, occasionally somebody buys one. And because that happens just often enough, I’ve got a “name” in the spirituality biz. I’ve got just enough fame to be able to do this as my main job. I don’t have to work for Victor Temporary Services like I did for quite a while. When I lost my job at Tsuburaya Productions in 2009, I managed to carry on with this Buddhist book writer thing and it’s been going OK.

I think the natural thing that most people in my position would want to do is take it to the next level. People are always urging me to do that. Some people have a real interest in me taking it to the next level. Most of them are nice people, who sincerely believe in my sort of weird take on Zen Buddhism. They think it’s valuable. And I really appreciate these people.

I get a lot of advice all the time on how to “grow my brand.” People want to tell me how I can sell more books, get more views on my videos, get in more magazines, get on TV talk shows, maybe even meet Oprah herself! I always listen, but I rarely follow that kind of advice.

I’m always reluctant to go to the proverbial “next level.” In some sense I have moved up steadily in terms of the general public’s awareness of who I am and what I do. But the progress has been slow. Plus I’m always pulling things back. Often, when I feel like I might be getting too popular, I do things to try to slow the progress down. Those of you who hate my political stuff might be interested to know that I sometimes deliberately take positions that I know are going to be unpopular with the sorts of people who style themselves as being “into spirituality.” I do that to scare off some of the people who might be sort of trying me out because I’m the flavor of the week at their local Zen center or something. It’s terrible for my “brand,” but it’s good for my real life.

The reason I’m not that interested in ascending the ladder of spiritual teacher success is because every time you go to the next level there’s a certain amount of compromise that’s involved. Each new level that you ascend to involves more and more and more compromise. I’m not sure exactly why this is. But I have some theories.

For example, let’s imagine a guy who starts out kind of like me. He has a real spiritual practice that he’s been working on privately for a long time. He’s had some genuinely mind-blowing experiences around that practice. He’s gained some insights that not everyone else has.  He has something to offer. So he puts out a book. 

After the book comes out, he starts getting some notoriety. He gets in a few magazines. When he does a lecture about his book, people show up. So he does the next logical thing, the thing that lots of people in his position do, he sets up a center of some kind where people can learn from him.

But what happens is the center has bills to pay. You have to keep the lights on and the water running and all that. And because the center has bills to pay, the guy in charge of things has to find ways to get butts in seats, to get people to show up and to donate. How do you get butts in seats? Well one good way to do that is to amp up your message a little bit to make sure folks keep coming and keep contributing. It’s also good to start looking the part, and start acting the part. There are certain expectations for how a spiritually gifted person ought to appear and ought to sound. When you do that, more people contribute more money.

And as they keep contributing, the center gets bigger. And as the center gets bigger, the guy in charge has more responsibilities. Pretty soon there are other people than just him on the payroll, because it’s too big for one person to manage. So now it’s not just the guy who wrote the book who has to get paid, all these people who work for the guy who wrote the book have to get paid too. And before long the center and the operation around it gets even bigger. Now you’ve got people who working for the people who are working for the guy who wrote the book. They’ve got to get paid as well. 

If this keeps up, our guy who had a genuine spiritual experience and wrote a nice book about it ends up with a kind of monster that has to keep getting fed. And the question of how to keep feeding the monster becomes the number one thing in his life. He hasn’t got time to be spiritual anymore. Who’s got time for that? Whatever insights that might have put him in this position in the first place hardly matter anymore. But he’s still got to pretend he’s the same guy as he was ten years ago when he wrote the book, or twenty years ago when he had the spiritual insight that he wrote about in the book. But he’s not that guy at all now. He’s not a humble monk or spiritual seeker trying to connect with something greater inside us all. He’s a CEO.

So, even though he started with great intentions of bringing this spiritual something that he found to the world, he’s ended up with this monster he’s got to maintain and a bunch of hungry mouths to feed. Maintaining the monster has taken over his life, and it’s the only thing he can do anymore.

I read a book a while ago called Infinite Tuesday by Michael Nesmith. Michael Nesmith was one of the Monkees — a made-for-TV pop group from the sixties who, for a while, got to be really huge. One day they were four regular kids in their early twenties who passed an audition for this TV show, and within about a month they were superstars. Nesmith is in his seventies now and the book is about his life, and about how that whole thing went for him. One of the interesting things he writes about is when he calls “celebrity psychosis.” It’s what happened when he started to become famous as one of the Monkees. He was only 24 years old when this happened.

He said that you realize in that position that you’ve suddenly got a lot of power that you didn’t have before. He said there is a kind of interest in seeing what you can do with this power. But there’s no real understanding of where any of its gonna go. He said that people in that position have all kinds of adulation thrown at them. 

I get that same sort of stuff all the time. Not to the degree that Michael Nesmith dealt with. But it comes to spiritual celebrities just like it comes to pop stars. And the rise to fame can be just as sudden and jarring. I open my email every day and get praised. Which might sound like a nice thing. And it is in some ways. But it’s also a very weird thing. I feel like I don’t know who they’re praising. They’re not praising this guy that’s sitting there reading those emails. I feel disconnected from that guy. That’s not me. I don’t identify as that guy. They’re praising something else.

But you can get into it. Some really people do get into it and start identifying as the person they’re reading all this praise about. You can feel that it’s my thing and that I am worthy of this adulation. If that happens you’ll inevitably start to make serious mistakes in your dealings with people. I’ve made some mistakes in my dealings with people, that’s for sure! I think I’ve managed it OK, but just barely. 

When I see some of the scandals that have erupted in the world of celebrity spirituality I can understand exactly how they came about. My vices might not be the same as the ones I’ve seen some of these people indulge in. But I’ve seen how easy it is to get tempted to take what’s being willingly offered by all these nice people who love you so very much. The more that you let this adulation come to you, the more mistakes you’re gonna make. And those mistakes will just keep on getting worse if you let them. 

Another interesting thing I think happens is that people always realize they’re going wrong. But some of them can’t admit it, even to themselves. And they very often feel like too many people are depending on them for them to be able to walk away, even when they see that walking away would be the best thing for them to do. I have a pet theory that when it gets to this point, a lot of these people seek to undercut their own power. They’re trying to kind of commit suicide or at least to murder this caricature of themselves that their followers believe in. 

This is because it’s such a burden to maintain the image of saintliness when they know for a fact that it isn’t true. The image of saintliness is not just untrue for them, by the way. Nobody could ever possibly live up to the image that some spiritual celebrities cultivate for themselves, or have thrust upon them. So they’ll try to undercut it by, for example, having an affair with a student, or with several students, or pushing the boundaries in some other way. Sex is usually involved. It’s the one thing that always seems to do the trick if you want people to stop thinking you’re a saint.

I don’t think this happens consciously in most cases. But somewhere in the back of their minds, folks in this weird position of being a spiritual celebrity know that doing that kind of thing is gonna end up destroying their career. And that’s what they secretly want. They want out. And the only way they’re ever going to be free of this saintly image is to destroy it.

It’s not a great strategy. A lot of people end up getting hurt when it happens. But I really do think that, when things get totally out of control, sometimes it’s the only way out for some people.

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