“The main obstacle for most westerners is not access to a teacher, it’s lack of understanding on how to evaluate a teacher. There are traditional ways of doing that…” -Yar Pal
I. How do you spot a false teacher? False prophet? False leader?
This month I crossed two oceans and three seas, and the same question is churning them all. The churn brings old garbage to the surface. It’s how consciousness evolves.
Behind the question is curiosity or grief, about how hard it is to find authentic guides. I dunno: it seems real ones… are really human. They’re people who can still go toe-to-toe with you after the pedestal you created in spiritual adolescence crumbles. They are people whose students generate actual growth. It feels like good teachers are all over the place, in different shapes and intensity levels. It is as easy, or hard, to find them as it is draw the best out of this world.
Predatory teachers are rare but they are real, and they can hurt you, and it is not all good. As this becomes obvious, what I see are a lot of people longing for a sense of safety, and for experiences of meaningful trust.
Mystics don’t just transmit ecstasy; their veins course in nature-made moral intelligence. Some have left us scriptures on discerning the motivations and abilities of so-called teachers. It helps me to go to the trouble to search the wisdom writings, and to tap the sheer goodness of higher minds. I can’t possibly add to that, so have no moral argument here. But… could you use a pair of heat-sensing goggles to filter through the mess on the ground?
That’s what this is. One fine filter in the form of a question.
Which direction does the energy flow?
This question can cut through the persona, the beauty, the charisma, the resume’, the associations, and even though that amazing thing your energy may do when you are with them. You can use it instead of relying on celebrity, emotion, “brilliance,” coincidence, or “the universe” to connect with teachers. This question is a tool for setting and sticking to clear intentions, and not being carried away into feelings of specialness or cultures of conformity.
Does the teacher give their energy away? Or, do they rely on students to meet their own base or pathological needs? There are levels of give and take among teachers and students – and hopefully some balance of energy exchange is possible. But almost always the downstream or upstream momentum is stronger: either a teacher is carried by currents of generosity and service, or their primary impulse is the cyclical harvesting of energy (most often in the lower forms of money, sex, power and validation) from their students.
It helps to see the difference between scarcity needs and abundance needs. Humans have scarcity needs – a basic level of shelter, food, sexual connection, personal power, and recognition that the primal brain needs in order not to freak out. In short: lizard brains need money, sex, power, attention. (Most would not include attention at the base of our needs hierarchy, but I submit that a need for social recognition has become primal for humans. While social media is using this fact to make people into internet addicts, the same circuitry could be redirected to turn us into primally interconnected yet autonomous small groups – hive minds of a healthy kind. Two centuries ago, lone rangers and cave yogis were fine alone… now even the most independent humans actually do need to be part of something. On a primal level. More on this idea later.)
The thing about money/sex/power/attention is that they’re addictive. Sometimes, the “special” people who get huge amounts of them stop understanding that they have had enough. They lose the plug on the bath tub. No amount of money can ever be enough. No amount of being wanted, or being gratified. Often, people in positions of power are MSPA addicts, but as students we don’t understand enough about the addictive nature of these substances (and are not sufficiently critical) to see it. So, we feed them. We let our energy be sucked upstream. This is why the phenomenon of celebrity exists.
Sane people experience satisfaction. They keep the well of primal needs full, and from there move on to connection needs. Intimacy and efficacy. This is where many of us live, and in this space there’s an increasing thrill in being useful to other beings of various sorts. Beyond this are full-blown abundance needs, whereby the boundaries of the self become so diffuse that the dominant need is to give without receiving in return. Because return would be redundant to a self that identifies with all beings. Most of us have glimpsed abundance needs. Operating from that place feels better than anything else… but then we forget when we stop for lunch. Abundance needs are predominant in a few people, and I think this is where true service comes from – the kind of care for others that prefers no recognition in return. It seems that “abundance onset” can arise from both knowledge that this motivation structure is real, and from direct contact with people whose energy runs this way. In any case, the point here is that when connection and abundance needs edge out scarcity needs even a little, then the energy is flowing downstream. If you are concerned about placing your trust in the right place, filter out the users and learn to identify people who are really able to give their energy away.
Meantime, the really vexing scenario is not just a predominance of scarcity needs in a teacher, but any pattern of using students to get the primal needs met. So my suggestion to people who are asking how to spot a false teacher is this: develop a special radar for teachers who tend to harvest MSPA from their students. Get a feel for that primal heat in them. Remember everybody has primal needs and that, in and of itself, this is good. Yet… do not look to these people for help in healing. Their energy just isn’t clean.
If you take this framework seriously, over time it’s possible to learn to sense anyone’s energy loops without analysis. You feel this energy like you feel the tingle of a battery on the tongue. But Until your radar is perfect, there are clues to be found everywhere. Here are the first 15, off the top of my head. I bet anyone reading can add more to this list…
(1) Learn about a person’s long term relationships: what are the patterns? Is there a trail of tears of broken teacher relationships behind them? (2) Watch how they establish trust: do they meet people on the level, or do they invoke external qualifications/ authority? (3) Screen for fragility or reactivity around criticism from students – openly question teachers you suspect of power hoarding and see if they freak out or get defensive. (4) Notice how they respond to adoration, and whether they subtly teach students to put them on a pedestal. (5) Listen to see if they listen to students – if they can give their attention fully. (6) Notice any seeking for validation, including a need to feel attractive or always right in students’ eyes. Ask them about things they can’t know and see if they are willing to admit ignorance. (7) Don’t trust charisma – anyone with a decade of daily practice is coursing in it and can use it to get what they want. Charisma is a cheap trick.
(8) Learn about “referent power” – the invocation of special relationships with authority figures you don’t even know to assert hierarchy and demand obedience. (9) Notice any drive to build a following: this is how cult leaders get started. (10) Scan for the behavior of isolating students and flooding them with special attention – this is the crusty power hoarder’s version of foreplay. (11) Be extra skeptical of teachers in workshop situations, where we are on our best behavior and covered in the special aura of the visiting expert. Toy with any pedestals teachers attempt to stand on in workshop settings, and see if they can stay present for that. (12) If someone pretends to be so saintly as to have no material, sexual or attentional needs, don’t buy it. Smells like spiritual bypassing.
(13) Run, don’t walk, in the opposite direction of any westerner who affects a guru persona or expects absolute obedience without any expression of your personality. Demanding obedience shows misunderstanding of the guru model, which – even properly understood – is a cultural phenomenon that does not export beyond traditional eastern cultures with strong family ties. The only reason for a westerner to affect a guru persona is to set up a game in which you give them your power and you pretend not to notice their humanness. (14) Is there anything more sketchy than a teacher without a great sense of humor, or one who tries to keep their everyday flaws hidden from view? (15) Look for a true understanding of love that has nothing to do with compliments, obligations or flattery. Love from a teacher is expressed (among other ways) through pure, quiet, non-sticky attention in the present moment. This is the vibe that moves energy away from the teacher and fuels students’ growth.
II. Light on Personality Disorders
Forgive me, but if you really want to be able to vet teachers, there must be savvy around the issue of personality disorder. If you regard the matter with open curiosity rather than disgust, it becomes inherently interesting and won’t leave such an aftertaste. There are many ways to be human, and who is to say that the person who lacks a stable ego (in narcissism) or an ability to empathize (in psychopathy) doesn’t have something to teach us? (Ironically, my experience with psychopaths makes me think empathy is overrated in the healing arts, and that those of us who have it in excess need to stop patting ourselves on the backs and instead clarify our emotional boundaries.)
When it comes to vetting teachers, especially learn the energy signatures of psychopathy and narcissism. Teaching is extremely gratifying to these mindsets, and attracts them. We are talking about extreme black holes of energy-hunger. Yet the fact that the energy is running massively in the wrong direction can be hard for a new student to spot because of the intense, superficial feel-good component of learning from someone who is expressing a disordered personality.
Psychopathy and narcissism aren’t people: they are energetic patterns that show up in many places. Most of us don’t express these patterns, or we begin to experience them and our systems promptly discover the antidotes. But in a few cases, due to some mixup in nature or nurture, these patterns come to predominate or even take over a whole personality.
The reason to understand these patterns from an intellectual standpoint is that psychopaths and narcissists tend to be more intelligent and manipulative than everyone else. They see through people with everyday emotions, and know how to exploit these human weaknesses to fulfill their bottomless needs for power (psychopaths) or attention (narcissists).
This is a matter for individual study, but briefly:
A narcissist is someone with a hole in their heart. They can never feel valid in their personhood, and because of this they experience pretty constant pain. Because their need is just for attention, they can be harmless. The danger is that the mutual appreciation societies narcissists erect around healing practices will prevent you from actually growing – because the point is to harvest your attention for the teacher. There is a lot of self-pity, and strong reactivity to criticism. Narcissists tend to get resentful and vengeful when someone withdraws their supply of attention. This is where one might take the initiative to hurt a student. As long as you don’t let a narcissistic teacher latch on to you with their vampire teeth, you’ll be fine.
Psychopaths are the smartest among us, and can be extremely tough to spot. According to the great book Saints and Psychopaths, they especially cluster in the clergy. Psychopaths don’t experience emotion outside of the thrill of power (and terror of losing it), so through study of others learn to simulate everyday emotions as a way to try to get the one gratification that really moves them: domination. It’s actually sad that meaning isn’t available to the psychopath by more modest means. Because they know human frailty better than anyone, they can generate the best energy you’ve ever experienced. Their charisma is phenomenal, and they can coddle an individual ego more effectively than anyone else. In theory, a psychopath would apologize to advance any agenda, but in real life one way I spot a psychopath is by a compulsive refusal to apologize because in so doing the psychopath would momentarily cede a bit of dominance. In any case, a psychopath knows exactly what your emotional needs are and how to meet them, but the payoff for them is the power they experience when they destroy you. So in addition to great energy, the patterns around them involve subjecting you to bouts of emotional chaos that bring you to your knees, a drive to win whatever game they are in at all costs, and a love of power hierarchies where they can experience some of the dynamics of being human despite the fact that they have no capacity for love.
Maybe you have never been in relationship with someone who was expressing the pattern of a disordered personality. If so, bless you. But if a light bulb just went on, please, study this matter for the sake of discernment and grounded self-care.
III. The Good
Again, the mystics and the scriptures can help a person learn what to look for in a teacher. The best I can do is gesture toward the wisdom traditions. And I can let my own students know that while there are many hundreds of good teachers in my field, there is an extremely short no-fly list of genuine predators. My job is to steer students away from danger just long enough for those students to develop their own heat-sensing system so they can make wise choices on their own. My job is to teach yoga as not only a expansion of the boundaries of the self, but as the long range cultivation of clear, spacious, strong mind.
Resonating with colleagues whose energy runs in the correct direction strengthens my ability to move from abundance needs. When it comes to finding colleagues who move me, there are some tells. Here’s what I’d share with my self of 15 years back who didn’t have a teacher.
I love it when a teacher knows the jungle medicine, and has their Ayurveda trip together. Folk healing and nature worship look primitive on the surface – I ridiculed castor oil bath and dosha theory for years before they actually became necessary to me. There is not a deeper well of vital energy available. People don’t go to the hassle of an Ayurvedic life style because it’s cool; they do it because they feel it to be the esoteric mainspring of the yoga practice itself.
I love it when a teacher keeps their energy to themselves to a large degree, really cultivating a deep well of vitality. They don’t wear themselves out or spread themselves thin. There is a level of self-possession that enables them to fulfill the needs that they have when they have them, with no apologies, on a primal level.
I love it – and respect it -when a teacher is so secure (and has her need for validation so settled down) that she doesn’t base major decisions on a need to be liked.
I love it when a teacher recognizes that teaching is suffering. Yes, teaching is fulfilling and meaningful. But it’s also very hard if you’re real about it, and there is no good reason to chase after this work, or to get overly identified with the teacher role. This makes for a kind of availability that is not eager, that really enables a student feel relaxed and grounded in the learning process.
I love it when a teacher encourages students to develop clear minds, and to find out who they are as individuals.
I love it when a teacher does not want to have a million students or a following. They don’t seek economies of scale. They want to express their transmission, their duties. That is sufficient.
I really, really love it when a teacher understands the passive nature of teaching. There is no syllabus for yoga. There is just life, and whatever teachable moments it brings up. Meaningful knowledge is active and practical, and all the teacher does is bank information so that he can show up with radiant attention at the right moment… and then be gone.
I love it when a teacher has a uncanny sense of timing. Cosmic time. Psychic time. Symbolic time. When a teacher can trust in the radiant transmission-moments to arrive when and however the student’s process summons them, and can have the grace to let practice happen without force.
I love it when a teacher puts their own growth above everything else—even above giving their energy away to their students at times, because it’s their personal growth that’s going to make them increasingly useful tomorrow. Because one person who suffers greatly in in student-teacher dynamics is the teacher who has too much power and attention. That teacher can’t get true feedback on themselves, can’t see from outside the perspective of being the one at the top, can’t really get to the place of not knowing who they are or what it’s all about. The teacher locked in to an energy cycle that flows the wrong direction – that takes more student energy than it gives – is stuck in teacher mode and has little incentive to walk away, drop what they think they know, and understand again what it is to be a student. They aren’t going to grow – not like students grow when strongly challenged – and in an overly empowered position, they may be the ones most likely of all to lose their way.