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When Spiritual Relationships Go Awry, Part I



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.


When Spiritual Relationships Go Awry, Part I

Gerti Schoen, MA, LP

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APA Reference
Schoen, G. (2013). When Spiritual Relationships Go Awry, Part I. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Apr 2013
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