Evaluating teachers and healers ~ spirituality and healing vs. delusion and chaos

How can you tell if you are dealing with a genuine spiritual teacher, psychic, or healer?  Actually, it's quite simple: know them by their fruits: do their claims match up with what is going on in their own lives and the lives of those they seek to help?  If you ask for proof, how do they react?  Don't be fobbed off.  In his article "Shamans as expert voice hearers" Ingo Lambrecht makes some very useful points about the tests shamans undergo before their skills are proved and accepted by the communities they serve.  I touched on this topic in my earlier article about voice hearers.

The way in which people with this status respond to being directly challenged can be illuminating: those who are false or have only a partial capability will not wish to engage in robust discussion about themselves or their skills, and they will not tolerate their authority being challenged.  If you're not sure, have a go at it, and even more importantly, say 'No' a few times, refuse to accept things or to do what is asked and expected.  That really sorts them out.  If only I had worked this out earlier. 

When we've made mistakes, especially big ones, it can be a relief to find we are not the only ones who messed up, or were messed up by others.  I wish I had come across the stories of others brave enough to share their own such experiences earlier than I did.  When I began to question what was going on with Teri, I didn't have this sort of information which would have been a great help.  However, reading these stories did help my recovery considerably, and it's a case of better late than never.  I offer a selection of them here:

William L. Hamilton: just as I was coming to the close of the above passage, Bill's book "Saints and psychopaths" was brought to my attention.  The link provided is to a copy of his book that can be read on-line or downloaded.  I found that his conclusions mirrored my own.  Like me he asserts that there are many more claimants to spiritual attainment than is actually the case.  He offers his own bruising experiences as examples and provides a good check-list of how to tell the difference between true 'saints' and those who are in it for ego gratification and money.  He points out that superficially the two types may appear very similar indeed and emphasises the need to take time in arriving at your own conclusions, maybe as long as a year.  Bill's formal education is in psychology.  He acknowledges that those more recently trained may prefer the terms 'socio-path' and 'border-line personality' rather than 'psychopath'.  I must say I find them more suitable.

In my view everyone is such a mixture in every respect that even the best of teachers and healers will be faulty at times.  All of us need comment from those around us to help us keep on track, or to get back on it, which ever the case may be.  A good teacher will accept this sort of feedback and work with it constructively.  This is where each of us must develop our own judgement of what is right for us and be aware of how and why we commit to the choices and actions that we do.

I will discuss the problems associated with how our teachers can so often seem to be right, when outsiders can easily see that they are not, in a separate article.

Daniel Shaw, a psychoanalyst has written a hard-hitting article entitled "Traumatic abuse in cults: a psychoanalytic perspective"  in which he looks at characteristics observed in certain dysfunctional cult leaders.  It really is staggering how badly behaved some of these people are, and even more staggering that anyone puts up with it, all in the name of spiritual development.  He addresses these issues squarely and speaks from direct experience as well as the experience of those he has treated.  This is a very worthwhile read.  Here is an extract:
Cults prey upon idealistic seekers, offering answers to social problems and promising to promote bona fide social change.  Recruitment addresses the anxieties and loneliness of people experiencing personal problems, transition, or crisis by holding out the promise of transformative healing within the framework of a caring and understanding community (Tobias & Lalich, 1994). Cult recruitment often takes place in sophisticated settings, in the form of seminars featuring persuasive, well-credentialed speakers, such as successful professionals, respected academics, or popular artists, writers, and entertainers. Cults target members from middle-class backgrounds, often directly from college campuses, and the majority of members are of above average intelligence (Hassan, 1990; Kliger, 1994; Tobias & Lalich, 1994).
I found that the principles outlined in this article applied to much of what had happened to me even though the person I got entangled with operated largely alone and from a secluded setting.  That in itself should have been a warning sign, that and the amount of money changing hands.  While I don't begrudge income being derived from such services, to make one's income solely from work which is unsupervised and unrestricted by any external structure is questionable.

Jeff Masson: has written extensively about his association with Paul Brunton, in his book "My Father's Guru".  Like numbers of others who were influential in bringing Eastern mysticism to the attention of the Western world, Brunton seems to have become enmeshed in what he wanted others to believe about him: his wisdom, his background and connections, even supernatural capabilities.  Brunton led his followers to infer much about himself that wasn't true and when confirmation of these inferences was requested simply agreed.  Jeff reveals him as a man who had the ability to win the love, devotion and loyalty of those close to him, but who was an otherwise fallible man of distinctly ordinary dimensions.

Having become completely disillusioned with spirituality, Jeff went on to seek answers in the field of psychoanalysis, becoming an analyst himself before embarking on research into the archives of Freud's original papers.  Disappointingly, he found that many people he came across in this field were also faulty and not at all able to listen to or take on intellectual critique.  The New York Times Review of "Final Analysis" covers the content in some detail.

I'm sure there are many psychoanalysts doing valuable work - Daniel Shaw's paper above shows one such.   It's unfortunate that Jeff came across such a cluster of the problematic variety.

Like Jeff, I've found that human mediocrity and the associated wish for a quiet, complacent, well-cushioned existence is to be found in all walks of life.  This is exceedingly disappointing.  It is especially unwelcome, and indeed hypocritical, in fields which purport to be about the care of the human soul, whatever form that takes.

Bill Hamilton's check-list for distinguishing between saints and psychopaths is useful in evaluating the core values and integrity of any influential person in whom we place our trust.

It can be helpful to distinguish between practitioners and the framework within which they work.  My own conclusion is that while both are important, the quality of the individual is by far the more significant of the two.

Superficially, saints and lesser beings can appear indistinguishable.  Obviously we don't always have the time or opportunity to properly assess those in whom we must place our trust before embarking on all of life's business, but it makes sense to be awake to the need for it and indicates the importance of continuing to address shortfalls as they arise in an open and straightforward manner.  This responsibility rests with each of us.  We owe this to others as well as ourselves.  The more indignant those in authority become when so addressed, the more they reveal their inadequacies.  It takes courage to stand up for these sorts of things however, and I wish you good heart.

Further reading:
The website for International Cultic Studies Association includes a wide range of comment and information.
I found the article  "Why evangelicals are vulnerable to cults" by Harold Bussell, especially clear and insightful.
Book reviews held at that site can be found on this page
Thanks to Dan Shaw for drawing my attention to the Association.

To go to the next article click this link:
Perceptions of truth and deceit ~ a quote about the mentally disabled

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