When Spiritual Relationships Go Awry – Part IV

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP • 5 min read

digitalcoverZOMany people who come to enter codependent relationships with their teachers are–consciously or unconsciously–seeking to empower themselves by associating with a powerful figure. They project all the qualities they feel are lacking in themselves onto the teacher: perseverance, wisdom, enlightenment, strength, and so on. They become fixated on the belief that they can only develop these qualities the closer they are to the teacher.

Making the teacher their therapist, lover, or main confidante in their lives is seen as healing themselves from their sense of lack and inadequacy. Power is highly seductive in these constellations and easily becomes eroticized. The teacher is seen as the one who has the upper hand in all matters. But it is important to remind ourselves that she or he is not.

In her excellent article “Boundary Violations and the Abuse of Power,” psychoanalyst Andrea Celenza interprets the power relationship between analyst and analysand (which is applicable to the relationship between teacher and student) as rooted in three important basic conditions. She speaks of “the seductiveness of the analyst’s power,” which is derived from its setting: Here the seeker who wants something, there the teacher who has something to give.

It is the most fundamental power play a person can get into, because it mirrors the parental relationships. Secondly, there is the metaphorical nature of the power derived by the analytic/spiritual role, which is “to hold and penetrate.” And finally “power is sexy because it always was, i.e., because this is the way love was experienced in its first instantiation. We are born into a power relation, directing our first loving feelings toward those who have a temporal advantage, to those (parents or a parent) who have come before, so to speak. To be in a relationship with a person more powerful than oneself activates memories and expectations of love relationships structured around a power imbalance, of which the parent-child experience is the prototype.”

Empowerment is the key task of every teacher, if he or she is to work successfully with a student. But true psychological empowerment cannot be achieved by continuing the fantasy that personal power will somehow be transferred onto the student if only she or he spends enough time with the teacher, or morphs into the teacher’s clone. Students often easily transfer their power onto a teacher or a spiritual organization. They put all their trust in them, and in the process give up all responsibility for their own lives.

The belief in one’s weakness becomes a power tactic in itself. By displaying only the fragile parts of the self, the student remains in an ongoing state of disempowerment. She or he signals the teacher not to hurt them but in the process may render the person in authority unable to communicate authentically. This is how a teacher gets stuck in a nurturing position and has to make a conscious effort to not infantilize, but instead to challenge the student so she or he can tap into their own strength.

Some students give up all the power they have previously attained in their lives, hoping that, if they offer it to their idealized teacher, it will be renewed and replenished and enhanced in ways that will enable them to transcend all difficulties they have in their personal lives. Rejecting the ongoing offerings of love is ultimately what empowers the student.

Many students fantasize that becoming a teacher themselves will give them status and power. Just by wearing the robe, or by having the title of dharma heir, they will be elevated to a role that inherently makes them adored and healed in a way that their lives suddenly will be meaningful and without problems. But power cannot be transferred through dharma talks or even the symbolic act of dharma transmission. It can only be achieved by the continuous dismantlement of the inherent belief that the student is inferior and powerless–and by assuming responsibility for one’s own life.

Many people see power in a hierarchical way, as dominance, mastery, or command over others–or, looked at from the other side, as something lacking, vulnerable, inferior, weak. But there is another form of power that is not dependent on the relationship to another person. It is personal power, a sense of inner strength and integrity that represents the power to do something, rather than the power over someone else. “Power originates from a deep psychological source, from the very center of the self,” writes psychoanalyst Ester Person in her highly readable work Feeling Strong. “Power that we can own derives more from a strong sense of self than any position we might hold.”

Compliance and defiance are distortions of interpersonal power. Trying to please someone who seems to “have it all” disempowers because it caters to another person. Power is the ability to act, to try to reach whatever goal we have in mind. The way to get to this place is self-understanding, because it enables us to shake off past learned behaviors and enter new paths of relating and growth. The basic tools to tap into this power are already in us. “Power comes from intelligence, resourcefulness, likeability, creativity, availability, persistence. . . love, compassion, forgiveness, humility,” writes Person. Who among us doesn’t already possess some of these qualities? But we give them up voluntarily in the belief that someone else’s perceived perfection can finally make us whole.

Psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that much of how we perceive others to be is a projection of our own fears, hopes, thoughts, and beliefs. It has been said that the Dalai Lama too has stated that “all of life is a projection.” We experience ourselves as powerless even though we do have power somewhere in our lives. We were able to grow up, find a profession, form relationships. But these powers are forgotten when we compare ourselves to others.

Yet they are within us. But then we split them off and project them outwards, just as we do in idealization. We split off both, the positive and the negative parts of ourselves and project them onto the teacher. Initially they were the intelligent and compassionate ones, even though we have carried these traits with us all along. We were the ones who felt inept, fallible, like hungry ghosts. When we go through an experience of betrayal, this whole world is turned upside down. That is when we become righteous and victimized, and they turn into villains and traitors.

Whenever someone stirs up intense emotions, we have to look inside and see whether projection is at work. Whatever we become infatuated with, whatever we become enraged by, lies somewhere within ourselves. This doesn’t mean that teachers are off the hook, and that betrayal isn’t a very real occurrence. But we tend to fail to turn the mirror onto ourselves and see just how much we project onto the world. Nobody can make us feel a certain way without our participation.

Looking at our own projections is extremely painful and not easily achieved. The mind blocks off these important insights to protect our psychological self from pain. But it is an important tool on our way to penetrate the confusion of our minds and to become fully ourselves. Jung wrote, “Why it is so desirable that a man should be individuated? Not only is it desirable, it is absolutely indispensable, because, through his contamination with others, he falls into situations and commits actions, which bring him into disharmony with himself. . . . When a man can say of his states and actions, ‘As I am, so I act,’ he can be at one with himself, even though it be difficult, and he can accept responsibility for himself even though he struggles against it.”

If we can slowly introduce ourselves to the concept, working with our projections is a highly valuable tool to attain self knowledge. Jung understood that we can’t pretend or force our projections to just go away. That would be another form of spiritual bypassing. He writes, “The recognition of something as projection should never be understood as a purely intellectual process. Intellectual insight dissolves a projection only when it is ripe for dissolution. But when it is not, it is impossible to withdraw libido from it by an intellectual judgment or by an act of will.”

This means that we simply can’t avoid being hung up on a teacher or professor or some other  idealized person for a while, because we have to process all the emotions that come with it. Intellectual knowledge is no substitute for the process of emotionally working through one’s past trauma. There is no shortcut to enlightenment. 

Growing up is a painful process, and the longer we try to transfer the responsibilities that come with it onto another, seemingly stronger person, the longer it takes to become fully oneself. Yet this is the reward of having to go through all this pain: empowerment, self knowledge, and having a shot at becoming a fully realized being.


When Spiritual Relationships Go Awry – Part III

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP • 1 min read

digitalcoverZOLove and care are at the heart of every functioning spiritual student-teacher relationship. It is almost never equally mutual or even palpable in overt ways, and it may never be acknowledged. It can come in many different forms and includes struggles and resistance. But the intensity of every significant bond that is forged in this arena implies by its nature the presence of affection and love.

Unfortunately, the nature of this love is often not understood. Students come to love their teachers for their compassion and wisdom, but will add transferential expectations of the past that distort their image of the teacher.

Teachers frequently underestimate the depth and nature of their students’ love, contribute to an unnecessary and inappropriate eroticization, and cause more suffering. The students end up feeling betrayed and exploited, and the damage done is difficult to heal.

The most harmful reason for teacher-student relationships gone awry is probably enacted sexual misconduct. Most of the time, such affairs involve a male teacher and a female student, although it does happen in different gender constellations as well. The psychological dynamics at work are idealization, regression, and psychological merger fantasies in both student and teacher.

One prevalent desire for many students, male or female, whether they have affairs with their teachers or not, is the wish to be special to the teacher.

A close relationship with an idealized authority figure makes the student special by affiliation. It almost doesn’t matter whether the relationship is physically sexual, non-physically eroticized, chronically flirtatious, or emotionally intimate on both sides. “When a woman makes any kind of compromise with inappropriate sexual expression from a man, she yields control over her own intimate boundaries and begins a dangerous collaboration that can lead to her victimization,” writes psychiatrist Peter Rutter in his book Sex in the Forbidden Zone.

He stresses that inappropriate conduct almost always precludes victimization, because it is typically the man who is in power: He has control over her psychological and spiritual well being. “The mere presence of sexual innuendo from a man who has power over her can become a barrier to her development. But the most critical damage lies in the silencing of her own voice and the violation of her sense of self.”

Rutter concludes that any sexual behavior by a man in power within what he calls the “forbidden zone” – i.e. bosses, coaches, therapists, priests, teachers, professors and so on – is inherently exploitative of a woman’s trust.

Spiritual teachers must be keenly aware that any kind of seductive behavior towards an admirer is inherently exploitative. It is the first step to prevent spiritual abuse of the vulnerable.



When Spiritual Relationships Go Awry, Part II

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP • 2 min read



In my previous post, I discussed the pitfalls of idealization and just how easy it is to put a seemingly highly evolved person on a pedestal. What often comes with idealization is a certain degree of regression, which means that the admirer goes back to a psychologically less mature place and looks up to the spiritual teacher from an almost childlike place. This is what puts the person in authority in such a powerful place.

Spiritual leaders, and people in the healing professions, must become especially familiar with how idealization and regression works in the minds of the vulnerable, and make every effort to show them their whole personality–“warts and all.”

The way to go about  showing one’s true face as a  teacher (or any other person in authority) is to slowly introduce the students to one’s less favorable sides, and to stop responding to, or even reject, their declarations of love and adoration.

Of course, it’s convenient to leave them in a  state of admiration–the more flattery there is, the easier it is to actually buy into it. Who among us doesn’t want to believe just how great we are when met with flattery and adoration? But it won’t serve anybody in the long run. The more realistic the teacher can be about his or her own capabilities, the more realistic the student sees the world altogether.

This is how students move out of those vulnerable states of regression and childlike attachment, and progress towards a more mature way of relating to others that includes obstacles and conflict  resolution rather than avoids it.

When this gradual erosion of idealization and infantile longings doesn’t take place and is disturbed or cut off by a traumatic rupture in the relationship, the student is in danger of continuing to search for the perfect teacher, or relationship, that will give what is expected. Even when there is not a big bang but just a disappointed, lukewarm drifting  apart, the disillusionment can leave a mark.

A persistent hunger for love and validation may remain, which includes an inability or unwillingness to deal with the more frustrating realities of life. “We shrink  rather than open our hearts when we become our teachers’ clones, puppets or wannabees,” writes Scott Edelstein in his book Sex and the Spiritual Teacher. “There is the delusion that someone who is wise, enlightened or spiritually advanced is somehow superhuman. They aren’t.”

The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this dynamic as well. Coming of age during the time when Adolph Hitler rose to power, Bonhoeffer was wary of the psychological vulnerability of those who give themselves over to  the yearning for an all-powerful authority and demanded that those in power take responsibility.

“A true leader must know the limitations of his authority”, he wrote in a speech quoted in the book Bonhoeffer: Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. “If he understands his functions in any other way than as it is rooted  in fact, if he doesn’t continue to tell his followers quite clearly the limited nature of his task and of their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers who would always make him their idol, then the image of the leader will pass over into the image of the misleader. The true leader must always be able to disillusion. He has to lead the individual into his own maturity.”


When Spiritual Relationships Go Awry, Part I

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP • 1 min read



The story of spiritual relationships going bad has been repeating itself in many ways in virtually every religion. We think about the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church. Violent outbursts in cults like the Branch Davidians. And bitter disillusionment when a spiritual leader we turn to ends up not having our best interest at heart.

Eastern religions in America have not been spared. There have been sex scandals in Yoga centers all over the country, where self proclaimed gurus betrayed the trust of their students and exploited their position for their own personal or financial gain.

Buddhism in America too has had its controversies. This is what my new book Buddha Betrayed wants to explore. Teachers in Zen as well as other Buddhist schools of thought have been accused of sexual misconduct and boundary violations, mostly between male teachers and their female students.

Initially it involved teachers from India, Japan and other Asian countries who came to America, unfamiliar with the social conduct and flat hierarchical structures of this country, who ended up exploiting their students’ trust and their position of power. But there were many others who followed in their footsteps, and the psychological damage done can be traumatic.

My book is trying to explore what kind of pitfalls religious seekers must become aware of in their own minds, when they engage in a relationship with a spiritual teacher.

Perhaps the most prevalent and potentially harmful phenomenon is idealization. Often just the uniform of such a person – the robe, the foreign name, the shaved head – instills respect and awe.   We want to believe that this teacher, who may have done spiritual work for many decades, has fully overcome all their shortcomings and imperfections and is now a fully mature and transcended being.

We expect them to have their live together. We want them to be kind and understanding at all times, and firm and decisive when needed. We want them to have psychological insight and give us spiritual guidance. In short, we want them to be perfect.

But the truth is that they are not. Spiritual teachers have developed an interest in spirituality because they often come from a place of psychological suffering and have a desire to overcome the petty egotism of everyday human life. Many of them have worked hard to get to a place of serenity and altruism, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t still struggle with all the conflicts of the human condition.

In order to have a functioning relationship with a spiritual teacher, the students must work to gain insight into their own illusions, and to overcome their tendencies to idealize and to project all power onto the seemingly enlightened teacher. Only when we can see the other person for who they are can we let go of our own tendencies to see ourselves as inferior or lacking, and grown into a mature and well rounded being.


How To End Codependency

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP • 1 min read


Codependency is defined as one partner being dependent on the control and the needs of another, like when a self defeating partner falls for a narcissist. For the codependent person, the needs of the other become paramount, and one’s own needs and desires – sometimes even the whole personality are obliterated.

The primary task of a codependent person is individuation. Becoming one’s own priority. Knowing and realizing one’s desires. Discovering the self. And eventually standing on your own feet within a partnership.

The way a person becomes codependent often goes back to childhood, when a parent or an important family member or a caretaker used the child as an extension of the self and did not allow the child to develop his or her own personality.

The most important job of the child was to attend to the narcissistic parent’s needs – be it directly by obeying whatever the parent said, or indirectly, by becoming the person the parent wanted us to be: be good, be quiet, be compliant, be like them, become the better version of the parent and so on.

Parent and child became emotionally fused. There is no independent will the child may pursue. There is only the needs and fears of one person, the all powerful and dominant parent.

Even when the parent outwardly rejects the child, because he or she doesn’t seem to live up to their expectations, the child will still try to gain the approval of the parent and won’t be permitted to become an individual.

Children of emotionally fused parents will end up in codependent relationships later in life. Becoming aware of this dynamic is very painful. The first task is to grieve the lost self, and to find the pillars on which one’s own personality rest.

Even if it feels like all energy goes into the needs of other people, there is still a fundamental inner core that represents the true self.

Go back and look at old pictures. Maybe there was an aunt or a grandparent that fostered independence and ideas in you. Maybe there was a game you played with other kids, or an art project in school that represented your innate sense of yourself.

Maybe you read a certain kind of books, or created your own world inside your mind. What did that look like? What kind of stories did you feel drawn to? What places did you retreat to that gave you peace and joy?

There is a place inside that is indestructible and will expand and flourish if you start paying attention to it. It is never too late to start.


CIA DE FOTO via Compfight

How To Communicate Instead Of Having A Fight

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP • 1 min read

shutterstock_34411321We’ve all been there. It’s Sunday morning. The husband wants to see his parents. The wife would rather go take a hike in the woods. Or the other way around. One insists on what they want, the other resists or doesn’t really engage and you’re off arguing what to do with this Sunday afternoon.

The most important aspect to avoid a fight is your attitude towards the other person. If you internally roll your eyes and get ready to defend your position as the one and only possibility, then you’re already on the path of war. But if you’re able to look at it from a joint perspective – as inwe are going to figure this out together – then you will have a relaxed Sunday afternoon.

When couples disagree about how to solve a problem, both people should put their own opinion on the back burner. Instead, explore what else you would be willing to consider.

Do a little brain storming without getting attached to a solution first. What else could you do with your afternoon? Maybe swing by the parents for a cup of coffee and then take a short walk together? Hike with the in-laws? Have a romantic afternoon at the beach and make dinner plans with the family for next Saturday? Split up and each do your own thing? Find a whole different strategy all together?

Before getting attached to one particular idea, create a pool of possibilities first. Come up with some ideas what each of you want to do. That way you come closer to what each other is willing to give up in order to come to a joint solution.

First you have to give a little. That’s when you gain your partner’s trust and willingness to compromise. If you get hung up on only one solution (yours) you inevitably get into a power struggle and only one person can “win” – but the victory is short lived, because resentment will build within the other.

Change your mindset and include the other in your thought process rather than exclude them. From then on you will get what you want.

Happy couple photo available from Shutterstock

Treating Depression Naturally

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP • Less than a min read

Bright and Beautiful!

Depression, especially when mild and manageable, can be treated with natural means. Lots of people are not comfortable taking psychotropic medication when they feel blue, but still want to be proactive in trying to help themselves.

Psychotherapist Nicole McCance has now published the book “52 Ways to Beat Depression Naturally”. It begins with breathing exercises to calm you down and behavioral tips how to get motivated. I especially appreciate the reminder to simply go outside into nature in order to activate mind and body when feeling sluggish and depressed.

Very important are the listed tools to increase self awareness like journaling, handwriting, how to deal with fear, and gratitude exercises.

McCance looks at depression holistically and adds ways how to improve sleep and nutrition. She discusses the benefits of light therapy, aroma therapy and body-mind exercises.

“52 Ways to Beat Depression” is a much needed guide to help alleviate sadness and anxiety and to show ways how to be happier without resorting to drugs.



Vinoth Chandar via Compfight

Therapy Is Not For Wimps

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP • 1 min read

Pieces of Me? Most people who seek psychotherapy believe that they are weak, that their life force has been shaken to the core, that they can’t face the world and its challenges. But it’s quite the opposite. Daring to look at oneself and one’s imperfections really is an act of heroism.

Most of us don’t like to admit that we often are in need: we crave to be in a loving relationship, grow roots and find stability in a community, want the security of having a financial  cushion and so on. So much of our self exploration focuses on our needs and how we can avoid the pitfalls of never saying no to anyone.

And not just that. Sometimes we are weak. When our child is in pain and we can’t help, we feel each pang of that pain with them.  When we are exhausted and run down, we don’t have it in us to stand up to whoever we feel treats us unfairly.

Defeat cannot always be averted. All there is to do is to admit that we have failed. There is no way to pretend otherwise. We need to be able to face the truth of our human existence.

Admitting to feeling vulnerable and confused automatically takes the aggression out of a fight. Saying calmly “that really hurt me” or “I just don’t have it in me” deflects anger and opens the door for dialogue and cooperation. It avoids defensiveness and the typical downward spiral of self righteousness and stonewalling.

Seeing our weaknesses enables us to move past them, because we first have to become aware of our limitations before we can try to do something about it.

Knowing that we are vulnerable makes compassion with others possible. Everyone appreciates compassion, kindness and gentleness.

Every feeling is temporary. All things must pass, as George Harrison said. And there will be an end to feeling weak and incapacitated too. It’s all part of the human experience.  The sooner we can accept that, the easier we will move past it.


photo credit: CarbonNYC

Colored Lights Will Lift Your Mood

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP • 1 min read

candle alight

We’ve long known that soft candle light generally triggers a gentler mood, and grey skies can make us more gloomy. Some people tend to be depressed in the winter, when the sun sets early.

The same dynamic takes place inside our homes and offices. The artificial light that comes from the ceiling or floor lamp will have an impact on us. Especially the harsh light of fluorescent bulbs creates a cold, stark atmosphere.

Researchers at the German Fraunhofer Institute are now testing what kind of moods are associated with colored lighting. They found out that red light has more of a relaxing effect that will make us want to lie down or go to sleep. It’s the same red tones that appear on the sky at sunset. For our hunter and gatherer ancestors who lived mostly outdoors this was the signal to retire into a sheltered space.

In contrast, blueish light will wake us up, make us more alive and increases the drive to move. Yellow is said to increase concentration.

Research concludes that when workers in an office were forced to work in a space without windows, their levels of tiredness were much higher than of those who were exposed to daylight. The researchers then created a virtual ceiling with blue light and moving clouds, and the effect was immediate: the test subjects reported a significantly lessened decrease in well-being when exposed to the virtual sky.

Human beings are not made to be exposed to artificial light all day long. Exposed to TV screens and computers, our internal clock gets thrown off, and sleep disturbances are on the rise. “We’ve lived and worked outdoors for almost 200,000 years” says Oliver Stefani, light researcher at the Fraunhofer Institute. Exposure to light at night has been linked to depression, learning issues and sleeplessness.

A number of companies are beginning to tap into the market and are offering colored LED light bulbs that can be set to any mood, and even simulate the colors of the sunrise in the morning to wake you up gently. New technology makes it possible to control the settings of your home via your smart phone before you even arrive at your house.

Maybe all that is needed to fight sleeplessness is expose you to the colors of the evening sky.


photo credit: Leonard John Matthews

The Brain Does Not See The World As It is

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP • 1 min read

Havana, Cuba

You know that old adage that “we see whatever we want to see?” Turns out, there is scientific research to back this one up.

Compelling evidence is delivered by British neuroscientist Beau Lotto in his Ted talk “How our minds shape perception”. In his talk, Lotto demonstrates how reality always depends on context by showing a variety of colored patches, surrounded by differing backgrounds.

The eye will perceive the colored patches differently, according to whether they are offset by a white or a black background. Sensory information, Lotto concludes, is meaningless because it only becomes meaningful when there is something to compare it with. And the same goes for everything else. “There is no inherent meaning in information. It’s what we do with that information that matters.”

The whole thing is just as applicable to psychological dynamics. The backdrop to which we all compare our experiences is our past. We are biologically conditioned to base our decisions and perceptions on previous experiences, and to form patterns. Says the neuroscientist: “The brain doesn’t see the world as it is, the brain sees the world the way it was useful in the past.”

Which brings us to mental health, relationships and specifically to couples. When a couple starts fighting, it’s often about differing subjective perceptions of the two parties involved. One person may even accuse the other of lying, while the blamed one sees nothing wrong in his or her actions.

That is where perception comes in. Let’s say a young man grew up with a volatile mother who needed to be pleased at all times in order to prevent violent outbursts of anger. To him, it may have become a highly useful strategy to please and flatter any older woman in some type of authority position.

Say his wife grew up with an unreliable father, who disappeared in the neighborhood bar when things got difficult and flirted with the bartender there.

To him, behaving slightly seductive around women was a survival strategy, even though it may have been completely devoid of actual interest in that person. To her, any form of seductiveness activates fears of abandonment. A clash seems inevitable.

Unless, awareness is raised how these behaviors were useful and maybe even necessary in the past. And awareness is raised by taking a step back and looking at our own ways of thinking and behaving.

Neuroscientist Beau Lotto arrives at the same conclusion: “This capacity to be an observer of yourself is phenomenal — and possibly unique to humans. Indeed, to literally ‘see yourself see’ is in my view the principle act of consciousness, which has the power to transform one’s view of the world and of oneself.”


photo credit: eszter

The Gentle Self Buddha Betrayed
Gerti Schoen is the author of The Gentle Self
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