Any kind of power is a magnifier. One main source of power comes from our financial standing. However, commensurate with financial power is moral power, which is a power that has indelibly shaped our world by bringing out both the best and the worst in people, individually and collectively.
It is not helpful to simply avoid money or spiritual knowledge so as not to be corrupted by it. This only leaves people who are less thoughtful in charge of our world and our souls. But how do we move forward on our life paths in ways that both support our spiritual advancement and ensure that we cause more good than harm?
After a number of personal and private events that have pointed to the repeated misuse of power by spiritual leaders, I have been thinking hard about how we spiritual seekers can be more responsible with our own power.
While the misuse of power is disturbing wherever it shows up, it is particularly disturbing when it involves those people who are ostensibly meant to be guides for our spiritual development.
We expect these leaders, consciously or unconsciously, rightly or wrongly, to show us how to be good people—people with refined inner consciences. We assume this will be demonstrated through both their examples and their teachings.
They do not need to be perfect—in fact, a spiritual teacher’s human limitations can be their best teaching tools—but they at least need to be above the worst acts of exploitation and abuse. Shouldn’t they have figured out how not to perpetrate hate crimes, support extreme injustices, and harm innocent children?
Unfortunately, as it seems, many have not.
And others, while not making the worst of mistakes, still falter and blur ethical lines.
All people make mistakes in the course of their lives. All people deserve to be forgiven and to have the opportunity to set things right. But if you have harmed people, isn’t that a sign to return to the foundations of your spiritual practice? Isn’t one of the foundations of spiritual practice acknowledging your mistakes and truly making amends?
Again, I do not think that spiritual leaders need to be perfect paragons of morality—in fact, I think that this perception is in part what creates these problems.
My questions are simply these: How does someone who commits themselves to a spiritual path come to act in this way? What makes it possible to grow in spiritual insight and power and still be able to justify the exploitation and abuse of others? And, for all of us who are on a serious path of spiritual development, is there anything we can do to ensure that we do not also go down the same road?
The answers are many and nuanced, but the main issue is perhaps the result of spiritual versus psychological development. While true spiritual development requires a continual practice of ethical and moral growth, it is possible to grow in spiritual skills without growing psychologically. This means the person gains spiritual skill and power but does not have the psychological development to hold this knowledge.
There is a longstanding split between the psychological and spiritual approaches to development, each one wanting to stake a claim on “the best approach.” Many spiritual people believe that their spirituality is an advanced stage of development that puts them above the need for psychological refinement. Many others don’t even know the different uses and purposes of these two different systems. It is perhaps more beneficial to see the two as mutually supportive approaches where one without the other not only limits our growth, but also sets us up for significant problems. If, for example, I am a gifted healer and medium but I have not yet resolved my inner misogyny or contended with the shadowy aspects of my sexuality, then I might function excellently as a healer and medium but still be challenged by my human beliefs and unacknowledged desires.
Many mystical traditions account for the need for psychological growth as well as spiritual development. In these cases, most often the psychological maturity of the person is seen as a necessary precursor to their use of certain spiritual tools. However, in a world where many of the teachings of the mystical schools have been lost or corrupted by unhealthy power dynamics, the seeker is often left without a clear path.
I have seen many spiritual people abandon their psychological development, believing that they have expanded beyond it, only to be diminished by that lack. They overly identify with the spiritual part of their experience, which allows for their human drives to operate more and more in shadow—sometimes with the complete denial of their existence.
While I believe that the secular and the spiritual leader are very different in many ways, I also believe that one key problem they have in common is how their power distorts their view of what is ethical. This power, especially when the ego attaches to it, can result in many unhealthy distortions that lead to harmful behaviors.
Spiritual leaders face the unique pitfall of being able to easily rationalize—to themselves and others—that their behavior is sanctioned by greater powers and is therefore justified. But this is simply their ego. More dangerously, followers of such leaders are all too likely to project their own disowned spiritual power onto the leader, making it even easier for that leader to believe in the propriety of their actions. This puts the spiritual leader—or anyone on this path—at a great risk of losing their way.
Things really start to get out of hand when the spiritual person starts believing that they are the same as the spiritual wellspring they draw from, which tends to result in their losing the connection to their human nature. And, because transcendence of the human experience is a part of most spiritual paths, it is very easy for the spiritualized ego to “jump the gun” and see itself as more advanced than it truly is.
The problem can be succinctly termed “spiritual bypassing”—when we avoid our human suffering with spiritual tools, skills, or mindsets. The remedy is to engage in rigorous psychological development—to emphasize the experience of the more fundamental and human aspects of the self so as not to lose sight of them while spiritually advancing. When we are truly on the other side of our human issues I have no doubt that we will know.
We can protect ourselves from gross oversights by tempering our advanced spiritual development with humility. If we recognize our limitations and the perils of advancing without attending to our limitations, we are more likely to act in a measured way, build a solid foundation, and not seek spiritual power that we are unable to wield in a healthy way. Unfortunately, there has been so much oppression of people’s spiritual nature that it is challenging to hold both humility and empowerment. This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges of the era.
We also benefit from not seeing the tools or the skills as the destination. For example, a specific diet or giving up one’s possessions are tools to create more awareness about how one operates or where one’s weaknesses are—but this does not make one more spiritual, nor does it ensure that we are immune to the misuse of spiritual power, just as being psychically open or knowing a lot of spiritual information does not imply a level of moral spiritual development. If we confuse the skill or knowledge with the development thereof, we have fallen prey to our own ego and we are at risk. If we support others in believing this confusion, we have slipped even further. The solution is to stop our obsession with the spiritual light show, the profound wisdom, or the latest uncovered gift, and get on with being a good person.
Three of the most powerful things we can do to keep ourselves awake as we grow and develop are to put ourselves in situations where our motives are questioned, to put ourselves in environments that are not “spiritual” by design, and (like everyone else) to put our spiritual practices in action by living a regular everyday life. In short, we remove the things that insulate us from knowing the truth about ourselves. We ask to be shown our limitations. And we live side by side with our brothers and sisters.
My prayer is that all the spiritual teachers and seekers continually find their way back to their hearts, that they have the courage and humility to see their transgressions, and that they have the willingness both to make amends and return to the source.