The Perils of Teaching Spirituality

One of the topmost potential perils when walking the spiritual path is when one feels called to teach spirituality to others. I’m not referring to religious ministers who are sanctioned by their church, or to scholars who impart knowledge about religion in a classroom setting. In the context of Christianity, St. Paul readily acknowledges that certain individuals take on such spiritual roles because of a strong vocational calling, as ultimately authorized by Jesus, and Paul expressly condones such activities: “And he gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, some as pastors and teachers…” (Eph. 4:11).

I am referring to the self-styled, often self-appointed “authority” figures—so-called spiritual teachers, gurus, and the like, who characteristically present themselves as enlightened, or who at least position themselves as experts who are more knowledgeable about spirituality than the rest of us. But their actual authority may be questionable, and underneath the surface may lurk a massive ego. They consider themselves masters, and we their potential disciples. Yet the image they project may be a complete illusion, and many are in it just for the money. For more information, visit my webpage “ opens in a new windowSpiritual Teachers,” which discusses this topic at length.

Jesus taught that the foremost requirement of a spiritual teacher is humility: “Whoever among you would lead must first become the servant of all” (Mk. 10:44). And again, “No servant is greater than their master” (Jn. 13:16). Jesus himself washed the feet of his disciples.

The great Hindu saint Sri Ramakrishna repeatedly warned against “spiritual teachers” who are either jumping the gun, or are acting on their own without divine sanction, or are in fact no more spiritually advanced than the rest of us. “Everybody is anxious to be [a] master. How many are there who would care to be disciples?”(1) “It is a difficult task to teach others. One can become a true spiritual teacher only when one has realized God and received a Divine commission from Him. … For the teaching of Divine truths a badge of authority is indispensable. A man who tries to teach others without it will be laughed at. He cannot get realization himself and he tries to show the way to others. It is like the blind leading the blind. In this way more harm is done than good.”(2)

Spirituality cannot be taught; it can only be transmitted, and even then, by a capable, competent teacher.

In a recent teaching, the Dalai Lama humbly stated that he should not be allowed to sit on a throne if he cannot, in essence, practice what he preaches. And therein lies the crux of the matter. Ideally, a teacher is authenticated by a legitimate tradition, and any genuine teacher does practice what they preach, and they practice spiritual disciplines, and they have a degree of heightened realization. Otherwise, they merely spout empty, flowery words and often lead others astray by their dubious claims of inner realization and at-times hypocritical lifestyles.

Along these lines, opens in a new windowhere is a link [sorry, I cannot get this link to open in a new tab, so you’ll have to hit the back button to return] to what one minister (John MacArthur) wrote about many Christian televangelists in a bold, no-holds barred, “Emperor has no clothes” assessment. It should be noted, however, that spiritual frauds sprout up in many religious traditions and spiritual organizations in addition to Christianity, so buyer beware.

The issue of deceptive spiritual teachers and bogus teachings has been of lifelong interest to me. Decades ago, I made charts that detailed the misinformation promulgated by most of the popular so-called spiritual “teachers” of the day. But yesterday’s cadre of questionable teachers has been replaced by an equally objectionable welter of scam artists and con persons who pollute the current spiritual scene. There is nothing new under the sun. Many well-respected and popular teachers do not impress this observer in the slightest, while their audiences sit with jaws agape.

This topic has resurfaced recently, because of my own role as a startup independent book publisher, and my realization that the books I publish won’t sell themselves. According to one estimate, approx. 11,000 new books are published each day globally. The need for advertising is an unfortunate but necessary evil brought about by today’s over-commercialized, over-hyped, and over-monetized world. However, beyond a modicum of marketing and publicity, I further realize that people need to connect on a more personal level.

As much as I dislike “social media” (I rather skeptically attempted several Twitter postings earlier this year upon another’s recommendation before pulling the plug), I’ve decided to proceed cautiously and will provisionally get my feet wet by soon posting video snippets of readings, initially from my spiritual novel. Sounds innocuous enough, but this is not about jumping on the bandwagon and joining the already overcrowded fray. We offer highly curated spiritual teachings for dedicated spiritual aspirants, so I don’t consider this venture any kind of competition with the watered-down pablum that can readily be found littering the spiritual landscape, let alone the plethora of self-help entrepreneurs, who typically offer little or nothing related to genuine spiritual transformation.

Imparting spiritual teachings to others is not something I take lightly, because this involves, basically, becoming the teaching and transmitting the teaching from that level. Thus, it was critical for me to revisit the teachings of St. Paul, Jesus, Ramakrishna, and the Dalai Lama on this topic. And so, when sharing nearly 50 years of the crème de la crème of what I have learned on the spiritual path, or rather, paths, I feel most comfortable when considering myself a student, a fellow pilgrim, an entronaut (inner voyager) – one whose learning and spiritual journey continues to this day, rather than some expert who would inflict their “expertise” on us all, God forbid (and God help us). Ramakrishna humbly said that “guru” was one word that “prick[s] me to the core.” “God is our only spiritual guide,” he wisely observed.(3)

Thus, after having reviewed the foregoing essential caveats and cautionary admonitions about the very real perils of teaching spirituality, it is in this spirit, that of “beginner’s mind,” that I’ll shortly be posting my video readings. I’ll send a separate notification when the first one or two postings have been uploaded. I heartily invite you to join me, as I fully believe in the value of the teachings I’ll be sharing in this more personal manner. My fondest hope is that not only will this be edifying for the both of us, but it might just be fun as well.

(1) The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (San Francisco: San Francisco Vedanta Society, 1912), p. 113.
(2) The Gospel of Ramakrishna (New York: The Vedanta Society, 1907), pp. 167-169.
(3) The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (San Francisco: San Francisco Vedanta Society, 1912), p. 113.

3 thoughts on “The Perils of Teaching Spirituality”

  1. This post resonates on so many levels, John! Jesus in the Gospels reminds us to call no one Father but God, to trust no earthly leaders but the Spirit. And the Desert Dwellers were often so reluctant to take on disciples that if their little piece of desert got crowded they would simply move to a more remote location. The point, of course, is that practice is everything, and sharing the fruit of one’s practice is a by-product. May your humble efforts at sharing the news of your new book be seen as breadcrumbs along the path of awakening, rather than any form of ‘social media’ self-promotion!

    • Dear Elizabeth, your astute comments perfectly complement my musings – thank you. I wholly agree, “practice is everything, and sharing the fruit of one’s practice is a by-product.” I’ve occasionally moderated trainings or non-academic groups during my career. But when sharing spiritual matters especially, nothing is more odious than when we see any kind of “holier than thou” posturing. It’s also helpful to add a dash of playfulness when discussing the topic, as Lao Tzu might have done. All in all, to cite a line from my book, “We learn most when we are teaching.” – John Roger Barrie


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