Home > Spirituality > Broken Expectations: How to Deal with Disappointment in Our Spiritual Teachers

Broken Expectations: How to Deal with Disappointment in Our Spiritual Teachers


Note: This piece was originally written to summarize a dialogue between Ken Wilber and Tami Simon (which you can download and listen to for free by clicking here.) But i wanted to share it with the general community, as it is my hope that it can help frame the difficult emotions that inevitably surround people’s disappointment with spiritual teachers. It should be noted that this piece is not intended to help people emotionally process this disappointment, but rather to find some sort of theoretical grounding for their emotions, so that they may better relate to their own emotional intensity in a somewhat energetically hygienic way. This is the only way we can possibly hope to invoke the tremendous clarity, compassion, and resolve that is required to make sense of the impossible heart-ache of our teachers’ failings, and even find a way to use the disappointment as yet another opportunity for growth for student and teacher alike.

How to Deal with Disappointment in Our Spiritual Teachers

By virtue of running a business like Sounds True, which has produced a litany of audio interviews with a staggering amount of today’s heaviest-hitting spiritual teachers, Tami has had plenty of opportunities to get to know many of the world’s most extraordinary teachers in very deep and profound ways. As she mentions in the interview, when there is a business contract sitting on the table between herself and some of these teachers, she is often exposed to a side of them that many of their own students aren’t—a side that occasionally appears to be incongruous with the lofty perceptions that surround them. Rather than being the perfect vehicles of liberation they are often made out to be, Tami has found many of these teachers to be anything but perfect. She has been exposed to their full humanness, and finds that they possess many of the same relative foibles, flaws, and idiosyncrasies that so many of us are subject to. Sometimes this experience can be endearing, but many times it is painfully disappointing—especially when the teachers seem to be so unaware of their limitations, parading their spiritual realization in such a way that tries to mask their own human twistedness.

“Even though I’ve been exposed to Integral theory for a few years, it hasn’t prevented me from feeling disappointed again and again in teachers when a new aspect of their twisted humanness is uncovered in the course of working with them….” -Tami Simon

This sort of disappointment has been felt by a great number of people somewhere along their spiritual path, who have at some point become suddenly aware of their own teacher’s imperfections, in ways that can violently undercut the reverence and spiritual connection they feel with them. Sometimes students are disappointed when they hold on to the naive belief that spirituality is some sort of magical elixir, which, when done right, promises to make us happy all the time and cure all of our life’s ailments. And when flaws in our spiritual teachers are inevitably discovered, it must be because they are doing something wrong, and are therefore in no position to teach us anything. Other times, this disillusionment is simply a result of the quixotic projections many students unfairly impose upon their teachers—expectations that, since spiritual teachers are here as representatives of absolute perfection, they must themselves be absolutely perfect. And when it is discovered that these teachers still eat, use the bathroom, and have sex, they are immediately stripped of their demi-god status and cast out of our idealized heavens.

Much more difficult, however, is the disappointment that comes with recognizing very real pathologies within some of our most cherished spiritual teachers. Often these manifest as insatiable drives toward money, sex, and power—drives which are typically expected to be transcended as a result of spiritual practice. These pathologies can often be devastating to a student, who at best expects the teacher to simply “know better,” or who has at worst fallen victim to a teacher’s abusive dynamics, whether physically, sexually, or psychologically. Perhaps the most tragic consequence of these incidents is when disappointment and disillusionment begin to slowly devour the student’s faith in Absolute perfection itself, becoming lost in the wilderness of suffering and ignorance.

As we can see, there is a wide range of disappointment we can experience around any given spiritual teacher—from naive projection, to authentic pathology, to egregious abuse. In all cases, the student must follow the same general process: identify the problem, understand the problem, and modify—or sever—the relationship accordingly.

There are many times when, despite the disappointment we might feel toward a particular teacher, we continue to recognize in her or him something extraordinarily valuable to our own spiritual path, and wish to maintain the relationship. Unfortunately there is no universal formula for these difficult cases, as the circumstances are often unique to each student/teacher relationship. There are, however, at least three very broad concepts that can really assist our understanding of the dynamics at play, thus helping us to make a more informed decision on how to move forward with the teacher.

Multiple Intelligences

All human beings possess what are often called “multiple intelligences,” all of which grow through different levels of development, often quite independent of each other. Examples of these different sorts of intelligences are: cognitive, moral, spiritual, interpersonal, kinesthetic, musical, etc. It is therefore quite possible to have people with very advanced spiritual lines, but less advanced moral or interpersonal lines, essentially making them “enlightened assholes.”

States and Stages

Much of the emphasis of the world’s spiritual traditions has been placed upon cultivating and stabilizing states of consciousness, ranging from gross (waking) states, to subtle (dream) states, to causal (deep dreamless sleep) states, to ever-present Witness states, to radically unqualifiable Nondual states. While most spiritual teachers are capable of embodying and transmitting these states at different degrees of competency, it is extremely important to take into consideration that all of these states are available at every stage of psychological and spiritual growth. For example, using Jean Gebser’s developmental scheme, people are able to evolve through magical, mythical, rational, pluralistic, and integral stages of development—and states of spiritual enlightenment can be experienced from any of these stages of development. Enlightened Zen masters, therefore, can still remain strongly racist or fundamentalist in their beliefs, while having successfully stabilized some very advanced states of consciousness.

The Two Truths Doctrine

As we continue to deepen our spiritual practices, we are able to notice both the Absolute perfection at the center of this and every moment, as well as the twisted, flawed, deeply imperfect manifestation of the entire relative world—an insight commonly referred to as the “Two Truths Doctrine.” Only through contemplative practice can we fully understand the difference between the relative and the Absolute, slowly dislodging us from our expectations that our spiritual teachers be perfect in every way. After all—sometimes Absolute perfection can only be seen through a dirty bathroom mirror, through the grease and grime of human perception and ambition.

***

By taking these important concepts into careful consideration, we are able to more accurately triangulate the source of our disappointment, and decide whether we will maintain the relationship, or perhaps move on to another one. Often the relationship can be salvaged, indeed improved upon, by this understanding—by acknowledging the limitations of the teacher, we can actually free the teaching, and more fully submit ourselves to the Absolute truth reflected therein. In fact, the disappointment itself can have the remarkable power to transform, as it brings into powerful contrast all that we already know to be true—a stinging reminder of the inherent perfection that lies at the heart of every experience we have ever had.

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  1. August 31, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    Nicely argued, but when pathology or imperfection is manifested as ethical lapses (lapses which would result in legal or ethical repercussions if it were a therapist or a pastor in an organized religion), those teachers need to be sanctioned and/or no longer allowed to teach. This is the elephant in the room with a couple of people associated with I-I – and no one wants to address as far as I can tell.

    There needs to be ethical standards for spiritual teachers – and breeches of those standards must have consequences. I-I could be a leader in this, but instead they give legitimacy to unethical teachers.

  2. Katherine Konner
    September 1, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    As long as we see every moment as either glad it is here or wishing it weren’t we will always be disappointed one way or the other. The correlation with people then is if they aren’t perfect to us, meaning we attach expectations about how we believe they ought to be, one way or another, we will always be disappointed.

    I think it is important to speak up. To share observations, to lend a hand, to know when enough is enough, to know I always have the right to pass, the right to feel, the right to dream, experience, and the right to not know differently until I do. I have the right to refuse to allow compassion for another person in all circumstances, particularly if I have no idea that is what I am doing.

    BTW. I realized the moment I saw the new site layout I asked myself why’d he do that? The other way had design warmth for me. But changing the site with this essay is perfect (Broken Expectations) because although I don’t like it as much, I realized my response was based from the expectation of being accustomed to the prior site. And that’s all it was. So if you really want to know, if I was offered the choice, I would click on the other way…. but this boring mode isn’t going to stop me from reading your posts or communicating.

    And if a spiritual teacher was controlling, maybe I’d say something to them about it (depends on the rapport), I’d definitely keep my eyes open to what they were doing, and I’d decide if it was best to just find what they were up to from a distance. And FYI, if they were breaking a law, I’d turn them in.

    PS. Would you explain why you chose to install the rating system?

    • September 1, 2009 at 1:15 pm

      Hey Katherine – thanks for chiming in. I am not completely sold on this new blog aesthetic either, but i was feeling a little claustrophobic in the last one, and needed something a little more spacious-feeling. I guess this was an attempt in that general direction. But it still doesn’t quite feel like “me,” in terms of being an expression of my own Unique Self ^_^

      And I enabled ratings just so i can have a better sense of which posts have a more significant value for my beautiful (and highly appreciated) readers, and which posts might be too egregious, too poorly argued, too poorly written, or otherwise too much resemblance to smelly clumps of poo. Lord knows i am capable.

  3. Katherine Konner
    September 2, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    Lest is be construed that I am a proponent of purposefully saying no to being compassionate, it is not so. I purposefully constructed the sentence “I have the right to refuse to allow compassion for another person in all circumstances, particularly if I have no idea that is what I am doing.”, to demonstrate that we have a right to be the way we are. It may not be right, good, in line with what you think, even if I cause harm, death, destruction. (I can’t imagine living like that, but that’s just me.)

    I know I’ve taken disappointment a bit further, into the foray of compassion, but that’s where it seems to keep wanting to go. It’s like being on the other side of the ethical story about the man who breaks in and steals medicine he can’t afford because it’s the only way to keep his wife alive. And he leaves a note, explaining why he broke in, etc. To reply to your expose on broken expectations, I’d be answering as the person who reads the note.

  1. September 1, 2009 at 1:46 am

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