I thought I’d share this exchange I just had with a reader:

Michael, for some reason, issues of guru abuse are coming at me from every direction. I just had a good friend call me asking to talk – she has been with a guru here in the Bay Area for 7 years and is thinking of leaving her community. Her community is devotional to this woman named “S.” It sounds like from what my friend says that there has been emotional abuse from her guru. Her community sounds like a confusing jumble of projections and power struggles. I’m confused b/c I know some people (Ken Wilbur?) say that cruelty from gurus is compassionate and done purposefully so that the devotee can wake up. Even though my friend agrees with this viewpoint, her guru has said some things quite cruel to her that she says don’t sound true. So she is losing trust in S. Her guru will also not allow for others in the community to question her correctness on any issue. That does not sound right to me. There are other things as well that I’m confused about…. I realize nothing is black and white, all or nothing. But I’m really questioning what the hell is enlightenment if it can look like what S is teaching.

My response:

For one, your friend should leave if there is abuse. In all cases, abuse
derails the process. While I’ve never once heard Wilber endorse guru
cruelty, if he did, he should reconsider.

Second, confusing “jumbles” of power struggles show up all the time in
community. We, at Infinite Smile, have been lucky so far but should also
be aware of stuff like this showing up as we grow. That said, teacher and
community should work together as a container for radical shifts in the
way students meet the world. So any organization that doesn’t reflect
kindness inherently defiles what’s most important in the process of

Third, gurus are supposed to be relentless at pointing out clinging. This
doesn’t mean they should ever be cruel. Pushing happens and should. We
shouldn’t feel entirely comfortable with our teachers. They are not our
friends, after all. They are our guides on a treacherous journey and there
isn’t room in this work to lose our balance and either become too enamored of either the heart or the mind; the relative or the Infinite. This is serious business. Hilarious, but serious.

I notice in myself at times that I become aware of impatience
arising and thoughts that center around there not being enough time or
energy to waste on the same old stuff that students keep bringing up over and over again. Then I realize that I didn’t get
into this business for the outcomes. I got into it because I didn’t really have
any other choice.

Having said all of this, 21st century sensibilities help devotional traditions get pretty sticky. It never made much sense to me, but then again it works for some people. Regardless, total devotion to a teacher always brings out interesting qualities in both teachers and students. So what should we be looking for? One quality: trust. Are they firm? Good… this is definitely helpful. Are they cruel? This actually can reify egoic clinging in most of us, which is why I’d say “move on.” Without trust, intimacy can’t flourish. Without intimacy, the entire process becomes a “jumble” of egoic clinging.

Then the follow-up:

I think my friend is just beginning to step outside of her community’s foggy habitat
and admitting to herself that S is absolutely not flawless – and this is when the
problems began. Yikes! S was evidently enlightened through some kind of transmission from
Adi Da, but never actually worked with him. Maybe that’s part of what’s going on. She began teaching when others called on her to do so – is it a teacher’s responsibility then to not heed the call to teach until they know
they are ready? How does one know? And why do you think such a shift occurs when student has committed to one teacher?

And finally:

When is the right time to teach? Well, I’m probably not the best person to answer this as it was never my intention to teach. Short answer, I don’t know. In our situation, what started as a class on uncovering meditative stillness in a suburban hamlet became something bigger. I was fortunate in that both Infinite Smile and I have had lots of guidance from lots of people who’ve done this stuff before. I still call on people all the time for advice and I’m constantly looking at both my practice and the sangha’s “center of gravity” to make sure everything about us is reflecting a deep unity with the teaching as best as possible and thus remaining “fog free.” Of course this fog-cutting takes attention and work. For example, teachers who are surrounded by sycophantic students can easily lose sight of what’s most important, and because they are seen as peerless by all those that are around them, they can fall into the trap of becoming totally devotional to themselves and their work. This creates communities of pseudo-enlightenment, where egos that think they are awake push well-meaning practitioners into the ditch. And these ditch-dwellers simply don’t have the tools to get out even though “getting out” is precisely what is needed if enlightenment is the goal.

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