Toward a Guild of Spiritual Teachers

Posted on Oct 3, 2011

This post was sparked by a good friend who asked about my response to Marc Gafni. My email quickly mushroomed into a manifesto of sorts. It answers the question orthogonally, rather than directly discussing the particulars of the situation. It raises as many questions as it answers, and barely touches the delicacy and complexity of the subject. Hopefully it will provide fuel for thought, and maybe even action.

I write this email with more inspiration than the moment would seem to warrant. Everyone I speak with is cynical. The latest downfall of a popular spiritual teacher gets my own dark juices flowing too. But for whatever reason, I’m seeing this primarily as an opportunity for the creation of something beautiful. If we respond full-heartedly to the essence of what’s happening now, and don’t get lost in the weeds, it’s entirely possible that we will look back and see this as a turning point for this spiritual community, and perhaps for spirituality in general.

Bear with my grandiosity for a moment :)

The issue around Marc Gafni (at least the part that most interests me) is not so much about sexual ethics, but about the responsibility that a spiritual teacher has to his or her students and to the broader community. Marc’s passionate missives on teacher-student privacy and on the victimization of teachers by students make it clear that he holds little energy for public accountability. Whether this is because he is genuinely living in a post-conventional way or because he rejects the notion of public scrutiny for spiritual teachers is not very important to me. I simply want to live in a world where accountability is the currency we share, no matter your social status or evolutionary development.

In fact, many people I’ve spoken with share a similar dream. Few have access to it until I presence it as a possibility, which is a reflection of just how cynical the culture is. Most of us feel powerless, and more to the point, feel that spiritual leaders have abandoned ship. In what way have our leaders taken a powerful stand for ethics? In what way have spiritual teachers demonstrated that they’re willing to be held fully accountable, just as they hold their students accountable? We’ve grown so accustomed to denials that weak, half-hearted apologies seem like an oasis in the desert. I doubt examples are needed to bring this point home.

It’s hard to imagine more fertile ground into which to plant the seed of a meta-sangha, or guild, for spiritual teachers. As far as I know, the idea was first floated publicly by the Integrales Forum. The responses to the Forum’s Position Paper revealed at least some acknowledgement by spiritual teachers that it would be a good idea, in theory, maybe, someday, possibly, with a few caveats. I exaggerate, of course… some of the teachers embraced it more fully than others. Thomas Hübl’s recent comments (on a wonderful video with Patricia Albere) represented the only chatter about the idea that I’ve seen outside the context of the Integrales Forum.

If spiritual teachers were to get their shit together NOW and make it happen, it could save the integral culture from the huge dissipation of energy and Spirit that’s in process. I know too many amazing people who spent a few years with the material, got their heads blown, and are now wandering off slightly resentful because there isn’t a beating heart at the center of it all. And for all of the amazing work being done, for all of the great teachers, the core of the culture is dry. If we fill it with the glorious beauty that we know is possible, we will set ourselves up for a cultural impact that can’t be predicted. I have no doubt that, done right, the impact would be huge, positive, and unprecedented. But it really does rest on the leadership to right the ship.

Ok, let’s say you’re playing along with my thought experiment. What exactly are we talking about? What is this guild for, what function does it serve, what are the benefits, what’s the business model? That’s just for starters. Five minutes of brainstorming would surface enough questions to make our heads spin. Before I dive into details, I want to say this outright: I totally think this is possible. Sure there are questions (big ones!), but the guild lives in a YES space, not a YES-BUT space or any variation of CAN’T-BE-DONE space. Some folks would say that it’s already happened, just by virtue of how imminent it is.

First: what is it? I’m using the term “guild” quite deliberately. This is a group of teachers who are self-validating in the best way. Mastery is fostered, demonstrated, acknowledged, and built upon. Peer holons are established to accelerate development and to provide a structure for holding accountability. Holons interlock to allow for free-flow of ideas, and to minimize the potential for collusion. Wow, this has such appeal already! While many spiritual teachers are clearly developing, they sometimes miss the opportunity to participate in the teachings they themselves espouse, including the power of group work for individual and collective development, and accountability to one’s peers. Offering spiritual teachers this kind of platform for development within their field of mastery is an extraordinary invitation.

I expect there would be strata for different levels of student-teacher engagement. Teachers who embrace the guru function with their students are quite different from teachers who don’t. And depending on the number of member-teachers, these two strata may not be enough. There are different levels of experience and development (there are spiritual teachers under 30!), and this warrants acknowledgement. All sorts of complexities arise, I realize, especially as one starts to consider cross-tradition holons, and what sort of developmental model would be used to define levels. Messy business!

There’s also a possibility for a non-teaching level. Guild members could be valued as academics, rather than spiritual teachers, and be held to a different (but similar) set of accountabilities. People like Ken Wilber, Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, and Steve McIntosh would be perfectly suited to this level. If Gafni ceases operations as a spiritual teacher, his intellectual gifts make him a candidate for the academic level of the guild as well.

Some kind of judicial system (awful term!) would have to be implemented. Say a student claims to have seen or participated in an act that raises ethical questions. One of the guild’s key functions would be to deal with this kind of situation promptly and fairly (unlike the current trial-by-blogosphere model). Teachers should feel a sense of obligation to hold a standard. But they should also feel protected from false accusations, because the guild judiciary is trustworthy. Not weak or hesitant or biased in favor of (or against) teachers. This is not some secret tribunal established to protect anyone, but a group with names and reputations and a commitment to the creation of a truly fair system in a world that currently has no system at all.

In the case of an ethical challenge, what kind of responses are relevant other than the revocation of membership? What kinds of formal statements would be made by the guild in ethical investigations? What are the legal issues, especially with regards to disclosure of potentially criminal activity? What responsibility does the guild have (if any) in ethical questions of sangha behavior in which the teacher is not present? Lots of questions need to be asked, although I suspect that many of them can be answered over time, and do not act as blocks to the creation of the guild.

Hmm, sounds pretty intense. Lots of moral positioning and accountability. So why on earth would a teacher join? In addition to the protection from false accusations, in addition to the thrilling possibility of partnering with peers in their own development as human beings and teachers, the main reason (IMO) actually has nothing at all to do with the teachers. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

What is the benefit to everyone else? For starters, many of us are excruciatingly familiar with the impossible challenge of being a new spiritual aspirant. Evaluating teachers is a tall order when you’re just beginning to realize your inability to perceive clearly. A student could be assured that a teacher is trustworthy, and not merely by their own word, but by the word of their peers. What a relief that would be! What a gift to those starting their journey on this important path.

The benefit to the community in general is even bigger. Those of us who envision a world in which we can truly trust each other, and trust those in leadership positions most of all, are desperate for a guild like this. We have structures of accountability in our political and social lives. While they’re far from perfect, at least there is a path to truth and justice to which we can appeal. We have nothing comparable in the spiritual world. It’s like the wild west, just without the guns. The guild fills a gaping hole in the spiritual scene; once filled, a flood of energy will be released from innumerable directions.

Many of us are trying to manifest a new level of culture, which we often describe as “enlightened.” Isn’t this guild an actual manifestation of that? Isn’t this kind of collaboration going to produce explosively positive results, in ways that can neither be predicted nor measured? If egoless enlightened service to something higher is what spiritual teachers are pointing us to, would they not be the first to leap forward, putting themselves on the line for the benefit of everyone? Not just to model the behavior, but because THIS IS IT?

So THAT is the reason to participate. If it requires some form of self-sacrifice on the part of spiritual teachers, then so be it. Renunciation (as any spiritual teacher worth his or her salt will tell you) is the cornerstone of development. The reason for a teacher to participate is not for their own sake, first and foremost, but for the sake of the creation of the new wave of culture… a new level of development with a full embrace of dynamic ethics. It is not an oppressive Blue machine, but a living organism that can unlock the potential of a higher-functioning human society.

And perhaps this is the sangha that will be the next Buddha. Not a sangha of beginners, but a sangha of masters.

Ok, back on the ground: who should be invited to the guild? Let’s start with the assumption that there is no one without blemish. In a truly evolutionary model, integrity is demonstrated in response, not in “perfection,” which is an unconsidered and unrealistic ideal anyway. So mistakes cannot be a barrier for entry, any more than they would be a cause for dismissal. The integrity question becomes: how does a teacher respond?

There are very few (if any) spiritual teachers who would be undeserving of an invitation. However, any application for membership must be some authentic form of mea culpa — we have much to atone for, much to build upon. A spiritual teacher should be clear about his or her karma, shadow, weaknesses, and danger spots, as much as he or she should be clear on strengths and commitments. How can we even begin to have integrity if we believe ourselves to be without shadow, without room for development? Development not only in the creative sense (building that which is new), but in the restorative sense (healing that which is un-whole)?

As for who should take up the reins and start the damned thing, that’s a much harder question. It won’t emerge spontaneously from consensus, nor will endless vetting and validating committees be useful; a stake simply needs to be planted. My own opinion is that the guild can be created from thin air only by spiritual teachers, and only by teachers who have sufficient integrity, clout, and humility to have the trust of their peers. There are two responses to the Forum’s Position Paper that stand out (to me) in terms of subtlety and a marked lack of defensiveness: Terry Patten’s and Thomas Hübl’s. If anyone has what it takes to plant the stake in the ground and begin to navigate the complex personal and political waters with grace, I believe they do. It certainly isn’t my position to select the creators of the guild; these are just my personal suggestions.

Given the degree to which I’m inviting people to stick out their necks, strong community support would be extremely useful. To say the least. The obvious response to my invitation is “LOL political suicide.” Spiritual teachers rely on each other for support of all kinds (book reviews, teleseminar participation, testimonials), so asking any of them to step up and create a guild is laughable. If it weren’t for how much it’s needed…

Have I made it clear that I know how big a task this is? Still, I’m convinced (call me naïve, it’s fine) that the first steps can be taken right away. Building the sort of structure needed to contain everything I’m describing here is no weekend project. A declaration of intent, backed by guts more than glory, would suffice to get the ball rolling. Who knows: creative energy may pour in from others who resonate with the impulse.

Lastly, on finances. Modest yearly dues for member-teachers would be reasonable to ask for. Regular in-person meetings (guild retreats) would be required, and provide sufficient income to handle guild administration. Teachers would surely pass these costs through to students, which is fine. And in short order, the fruits of collaboration would be powerful and appealing enough to support a webzine or audio series of new and higher-order enlightened thinking. (I know I would subscribe!) Obviously, income-generation is not the seed impulse of this endeavor, and that priority must be forever maintained if it is to have integrity. But there’s nothing wrong (and a lot of things right) with sharing the development of new thought.

I continue to see the costs of the guild (in dollars and the “cost” of playing ball, as discussed above) to be trivial compared to the revolutionary positive benefit to culture. Which, unless I’m really crazy, is supposed to be what we’re all trying to achieve!

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