Spiritual Teachers and Discernment

“This blog post will change your life!” Actually, the truth is, it won’t, and there are good reasons to be skeptical of anyone using this phrase a little too often with a little too much enthusiasm, in my humble opinion. besides the fact that people reading this are probably alive and reading these words are adding to your life experience, (in a positive way, I hope,) most experiences are not life-altering. Some experiences, especially spiritual experiences, genuinely do transform you. In changing your inner world, your behavior, your relationships, even sometimes the way you hold yourself in the world will change.

I have personally had many such experiences, and none of them came prepackaged with the claim, “This will change your life!” There were no claims about outcome, only compassionate suggestions. There was no anecdote to uncertainty, only direction based on a plethora of past experiences. As a spiritual friend said recently, there is a reason people in the spirit world are called spirit guides. They don’t live your life for you, (by for instance, telling you how an experience will effect you or how you will feel afterward) and thank goodness they don’t! If things were different, life would be quite boring, disempowering, and distancing and you’d learn a lot about dominance and control and very little about authenticity and freedom.

The thing is, not everyone in this world has a healthy sense of compassion, unconditional love, personal responsibility, or honesty. Everyone knows that. But this statement is true, sometimes even more so, of self-identified spiritual teachers.

Two months ago I signed up on a mailing list to receive access to free telephone calls with various well-known spiritual teachers whom I had never heard of, because I was very curious about others’ experiences and approaches to their spirituality and the theme for the series of calls was waking up, something I am more than passionate about. It was a mixed bag. There were many genuinely spiritual people interviewed on those calls. There were also cooky cutter new agers and blatant scam artists. The host of the program seemed, in my opinion, to have a discernment problem of her own, and every call she hosted, she claimed, would “change your life!” The claim became statistically unsustainable after, say, call number 5, and yet she continues to make it.

For Aristotle, true excellence was synonymous with practical wisdom–sound rationality and emotional balance— and it was notoriously hard to achieve. Some scholars of ancient Greek philosophy surmise that to this date there has not been a single human being who has achieved this ideal. All this to say that, whatever excellence is, it ought not be a quality such that everyone and their adopted cat possess it. Such is true of the property of being life-changing, I think. It cannot be given to every experience, lest the concept lose its meaning entirely.

In any case, life transformation, as well as excellence, often were both sadly absent in this realm of inquiry.

First, there was a call with a spiritual practitioner who manufactures a filter which produces “structured water.” Skeptical already, I went to his website, only to find that the filter specifications explicitly state the apparatus does not take toxins out of the water. It simply “purifies” them with spiritual intentions. The rest of this filter’s enormous, and yes, “life changing!” benefits are scientifically proven facts about water itself. I was appalled by this person’s willingness to call himself spiritual while making a cash cow off of his dishonesty and people’s ignorance, both scientific and spiritual. (I was not surprised however, given the power of human egotism.) Here is a site discussing the scam:

People who don’t realize hydration has huge positive effects on the body whether or not it is “structured” but who have, for instance, heard accurately that water is contaminated by fracking could potentially be one set of scam victims. Structured water systems don’t prevent or reduce, let alone eliminate, contaminants in water.

People who want to evolve spiritually but still believe the authority to empower them lies outside themselves could be the second set of victims, and there will probably be overlap. Here’s the secret people: you are the one who empowers yourself, you are the author of your own life (not the same as the creator of reality) and you and everything else is interconnected. You can infuse as many intentions into water as often as you like, because ultimately you and the water are inseparable. If you need proof, your body is 75% water. You can infuse intentions in the water existing already within you, and get the same results as if you placed them in a glass of water and drank it. Water isn’t just outside you, it is you.

In general, you have all you ever would need within yourself to arrive at the threshold of your belonging, because that threshold has always been at the center of you. You can structure water for free. You can also skip the step of structuring water and become who you have always been and already are, from the inside out.

Several other people featured on the mailing list sold products that, though might have some nominal benefits, are wholly unnecessary to spiritual development. In the end, many spiritual tools are developed to help people focus and get into a state to access what is already within them. Tools aren’t bad in and of themselves. You don’t need a fork to eat pasta, but it’s sure helpful! However, if someone is trying to make you dependent on a product for enlightenment, run.

Another tragic example. The spiritual practitioner who is speaking tonight and who already has my discernment radar flashing red was introduced with the now increasingly meaningless “This will change your life!” guarantee which accompanies every single call, along with the following reason for why I should listen to her (which I will not): “Her popular Twitter feed has over 54,000 followers.” (No, I didn’t make it up!) For anyone philosophically inclined, but even for those who are not, arguments from popularity are fallacious and scream ego trip.

Just to be sure, I went on her website , where, sadly, she offers many blatant self-promoting reasons why people ought to work with her, including the particularly horrifying reason that she is “unique” because she works with the most high-ranking spirits on the other side. Now, this is one of the most blatant fallacies of argument by authority I have ever heard and, again, a huge ego trip. (Not to mention, if someone on the other side actually said something like this to her, she is being lied to.) What spiritual truth could a person possibly impart while fully believing in her superiority? While pointing out why your skills as a stock broker are unique in the business helps you gain customers and successfully compete in your field, the tactic is terribly tacky and telling when it comes to imparting spiritual wisdom.

There is a great and profound responsibility that befalls anyone wanting to spiritually guide others, whether in this world or the next. Those looking for direction (not a prescriptive formula) are, by the very nature of the relationship, making themselves extremely vulnerable. In such a situation, maintaining spiritual equality isn’t the ideal, it is necessary; otherwise one or both of you could get seriously emotionally, spiritually, and in extreme cases physically hurt. This intrinsic spiritual equality is one of the very first things I learned about with my ancient family. Spiritual relationship falls apart without it.

Yes, not all of us have the same skills. That is why there are teachers and learners. But hierarchies of expertise consist of inherently spiritually equal people, period. I would personally avoid anyone who believes otherwise.

I don’t understand how it is possible to be both consciously aware, aware enough to be in the circumstance of walking a spiritual journey with many others, and continue to hold the opinion of yourself that you are unique, and because of your otherworldly connections (who would undoubtedly insist on their equality) besides. I cannot fathom a more hypocritical message, personally. I can only conclude, as seems reasonable and my right in the circumstances, that such people are only pretending to be spiritual for their own personal gain.

I am unfortunately now not just wary of a few practitioners booked for calls through this program, but wary of the person conducting the program as well. What could have been a journey of interesting and insightful discovery has, most of the time, proven to be nothing more than a disappointing marketing campaign. I feel fortunate to have listened to the people whose energy and message resonated with me and to know to look within, rather than out to my culture, or to the popular spiritual culture in which this all takes place, to know when something feels like a scam and honor that feeling. I did not have to learn how to do this with a teacher, and I am not unique, nor special. I am one among many and I am learning and imperfect and very human in all that entails and my authority extends to my journey alone, and really not even that far. And, contrary to the innumerable claims made lately about everything and its lookalike being there to save you and change your life, if you just follow such and so or if you pay for it, I have this to say, which you can take or leave:

I have learned that I am valuable, I am needed, as is every other person here, and our worth is with us from before we were born, and each of us is one among many. We are whole. We are enough just as we are. I believe we don’t follow a spiritual path because something or someone needs to fix us. I follow my path for the joy of it, for growing, and because in changing I become more myself than ever before. I have learned that comparison is conformity, and conformity stifles authenticity. I am here to speak my truth, to finally see I am enough in my eyes, and be completely who I am. Isn’t that all we can ask of ourselves?

So, when someone bombards me with unsupported and incessant claims that “This (whatever it is) is going to save your life!” I remind myself that nothing outside you changes your life. You are alive. To transform our lives, we only have to go full out in living and being all we are.

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13 thoughts on “Spiritual Teachers and Discernment

  1. I think you put your finger on it when you said that unless you are content to have your life passively changed for you, like having your home repossessed, losing your job, losing your nearest and dearest in an accident, you have to do the changing yourself. I distrust anyone who’s selling me anything. I don’t believe them, end of story. If someone stands to make money out of the transaction, they aren’t in the business of telling truths, just sales talk.

  2. Great post Éilis! I have always wondered about such claims. It seems to me that any changes are internal rather than physical. They may not change your life, but they may change something within you. Things that change your life are changing your job, moving home or country, having children. Following a spiritual path I think changes a part of a person, rather than their life. But I am no expert, that’s just how it seems to me. Unfortunately the workd is full of scammers, and in an area like this, where there is no regulation other than self regulation, I’m sure its even worse. Thanks for the advice and warning. 😊

    1. Thanks, Ali! I do think that changes that take place within yourself can change your life. Probably not overnight. I have changed negative beliefs about myself, no longer am scared of certain things, speak to myself more kindly, and have much better posture. 🙂 So occasionally, internal changes effect you physically but only to the extent that you decide to change in a physical way. In my experience, it is your own beliefs and motivation, rather than spiritual tools, that change you physically. I mean you could (I haven’t done this and probably won’t, lol) decide to make going to the gym part of your spiritual practice for instance… but then it’s not your commitment that changes you physically but actually working out. Anyway, in my opinion, genuine change happens within you, when you decide you want a different relationship with yourself and the world in whatever way however small. You can’t get that from the outside. If you’re being made to change for reasons outside of yourself and you haven’t already decided to make that shift within yourself, that’s coersion. And I agree, the lack of accountability and standards in spiritual teaching makes it too easy for scammers and those who just want to take advantage of others and play off people’s insecurities and human vulnerabilities.

  3. Excellent article, Eilis. My own teachers . living and ones I hold dear through their written legacy… always stressed that discernment itself is a major requirement on the path.. whichever path you choose to walk. And also that the ‘proof of the pudding is in the eating’…

    1. Thanks, Sue! Your statement about proof in the eating reminds me of a wonderful point which Martha Beck, who is one of the extremely few people in this world I will spiritually learn from, says about discernment. She also uses the metaphor of whether it tastes right or funny and suggests asking questions of the potential opportunity or change such as: does it taste like confinement or freedom? Does it taste like anxiety or peace? Does it taste like being pushed into it or being eased into it? Does it taste like drudgery and a should or like enthusiasm and joy? Those questions probably won’t help you with discerning pseudoscience and aren’t supposed to help you with everything, which is the case with sound advice in my opinion because it won’t claim to be wholly universal. I personally find quite often the proof is indeed in how things “taste” for me and that those questions are helpful precisely because they assist me in looking within to really consider whether I am living by my own truth.

      1. I wonder that too. But if I try sincerely answering the question I won’t get any work done today! 🙂

        Anything I say briefly will sound trite and paradoxical. However…

        Speaking personally, 🙂 I used to think inner truth was wholly each one’s own until I started walking my journey with my ancient family and found a large portion of what is truth for me is culturally shared. So now I wonder if inner truth is a personal gnosis of individual experience coupled with real wisdom that can be gleaned from a person’s culture. I also believe all life affirming spiritual paths are equally valid, but hesitate to say all (at least knowable) personal truths are facets of a single truth because not all paths are life-affirming, some are not at all and some have aspects that are frighteningly destructive (what is done in the name of Christianity for instance.) I live by the saying “the truth against the world” but have to say the discussion about what truth and whose world is a continuing and ongoing one, which evolves and has no definitive absolute answer. Often I understand the phrase to mean the truth of a person’s divine worth and sacred light within them against the world of materialist, consumer, individualistic values as well as considerable discrimination and prejudice. But that has never been the whole of it, nor do I actually know what a whole truth would look like. I also believe “the world” in question is something very much like “the consensus reality we impose on the natural state of what is in order to gain what we think might be important socioeconomically/culturally speaking. We are all ultimately interconnected, so at the highest level, any truth against part of the whole of what is makes no sense whatsoever. It is only a framework to help orient a person toward connection and out of an illusion of separation. Because ultimately, what is, just, is. Whatever is against that is a falsehood. And that would imply that in an ultimate sense, the truth contains the world, is against nothing, and when it appears to be against anything it is because that thing has always been false and so an illusion and so was never part of what is in any real sense.

        I am both ardently antirelativist (passionately and philosophically so but it would take too long to defend an argument) and wholly in favor of following the wisdom within us which defies any blanket statement of what-is-ness to uphold as a personal let alone collective standard. Logically, any statement is true or false, not in between. We may never know what happened, but if we say x happened, we are either right or wrong. The interpretations available to explain x are almost as many as the people experiencing it and more than as many as the people speculating about it later. So I guess: do I think there is a single truth? Yes. Do I think each person’s inner truth (about who they ultimately are and how they fit in the pattern of what is) is a reflection of that larger truth? Yes. Do I think we have or could ever consciously attain full epistemic purchase on knowing either the patterned truth of what is or the extent of the truth of ourselves? No. Do I think there is a metaphysical property of truth? No. So, now after being very serious I can get away with saying something ridiculous like: I have probably contradicted myself and if so then anything validly follows, and that is true.

      2. Our personal vision of truth reminds me always of fractals… containing something of the essnce of the First, no matter how far from the point of origin, even when perspective and perception have changed the outer form beyond all recognition, allowing beauty to become the instrument of cruelty and destruction. Like and weapon, it is not the inner truth that is at fault, but the mind and hand that wields it.
        And semantics have always caused havoc….

      3. Thoughtful and profound, Sue, thanks!

        Yes semantics are totally problematic. I have completely misunderstood or been defensive over spiritual paths because of the words in which they were described initially in, and only after getting people to define all their terms satisfactorily could I get what they were talking about, … and usually afterward, wonder why they weren’t clear from the beginning. The concept of being “personally responsible” for everything that happens in the world is a case in point: depending on your spiritual cosmology it will make sense or seem victim blaming and I have always thought there’s a much cleaner way of expressing the idea, which has to do as I understand now with being part of the total interconnected whole, and has little to do with how we use the term responsibility in ordinary language. And often, words are completely inadequate.

        I’ve yet to be able to see as far as you can here. I’m still very young. 🙂 I feel like a long, long time from now, decades perhaps, I can answer the rest of your comment. And maybe even then, I won’t be able to.

  4. It makes me wonder.. the whole semantics thing… just how different most spiritual paths are at heart. If we could communicate them without words, stripped bare of their stories and the emotive clutter that hides the kernel of light in all of them, how much heartache we, as a species, could avoid?

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