How To Be A 21st Century Wisdom Teacher (And Why You Need A Footstool Not Pedestal To Be One)
The dangers of becoming a spiritual teacher—and how to avoid them by developing peero-powered embodied wisdom to match our awakened minds
The Dangers of Spiritual Teaching
I am clear that most wisdom teachers, spiritual teachers, come to the work because of their own pain and suffering. It’s what happened to the historical Buddha. Enlightenment can turn wounds into embodied wisdom teachings.
Most of my fellow teachers will happily say this healing process was part of their journey. I can definitely say that I found the truth and experience of enlightenment to be the only thing big enough to help me handle the pain of my abused, bullied, and neurotic former self.
When one realizes that the process of switching on /waking up changes everything, and one groks that until others get this they will always suffer, a lifelong commitment to spreading this realization seems the only sensible choice.
I fully understand the fervent, all-encompassing evangelism for sharing spiritual enlightenment with the entire world.
However, as I detail in my books, any purposeful mission can always be hijacked by our need to protect ourselves from threats and control a chaotic world. The ego, what we prefer to call our Protector, is not wrong or bad. Far from it. It has a sacred and evolutionarily elemental job to keep us alive.
But to do this, it uses old patterns—feelings, beliefs, and habits that once worked to keep us safe but are now probably maladapted—to do its job. This is where most self-sabotage and almost “evil” behavior stems: the repetition of defensive moves to control the crazy and protect us, when they are not a fit for the moment.
Anyone who has established protective patterns to get by life that include, say: being rude or mean-spirited; being desirous of being sexually desired; becoming over-confident when anxious to the point of arrogance; wanting to be safe in life with a pot of cash; wanting to be seen, heard, and respected as brilliant— so that means pretty much everyone — will always be at risk of being triggered into such patterns. This is biology.
This means most people who become wisdom teachers are at the constant risk of being profoundly inappropriate, sexually tacky, power-crazed, and financially duplicitous. It goes with being human. This is why there are so many abuses of power, money, and sexuality in so many spiritual communities.
When charismatic spiritual teachers meet everyday folks who project their need for a savior/divinity/master onto a teacher, power can reshape the teacher and disconnect them from the flow of humanity. Many (mostly male and definitely masculine) gurus enjoy being the savior/divinity/master. If their own protective patterns have developed to allow them to feel strong, important, respected, special, then they can easily get hooked into assuming a role atop the pyramid of power.
Even if we think we are liberated and emancipated, the social conditioning of expecting a father-figure to save us, to guide us, to provide us with the answer… can be hard to be free from. Then otherwise smart and sensible people get caught in the tractor beam of charismatic power, becoming acolytes who enact their own often neurotic protective patterning to “enable” the gurus.
Turning Our Own Wounds Into Wisdom
In my view, a true wisdom teacher—and embodied wisdom teacher—must have a sufficiently healed heart, from years of deep and committed inner work, to have anything worth teaching in the first place.
This means not just doing spiritual practice, teaching non-duality, or helping people bliss out in the oneness (whether with aya or dance, meditation or toad venom) but integrating that experience into everyday life with the rigorous transformation of gnarly psychological trauma… ours first of all.
Perhaps noone is ever fully healed. But the process of constant healing helps us become ever-more whole, which helps our teaching bring others in wholeness, through transforming trauma into embodied wisdom.
Old-world, positively medieval, hierarchies are so embedded in both West and East and they lock us into permanent disempowerment and diminishment. No genuine teacher of wisdom, who has embodied that wisdom as love glowing in their hearts and guts, can believe in a dominative hierarchy.
As teachers/coaches/healers, we merely point the way, provide a map, hold space for heart opening, cultivate the condition for healing, dialogue with the nervous system of our clients and participants, wake up the wisest parts of them… but we are never doing the illuminating or healing ourselves.
Once someone has learned what they can from us, we must send them along to their next teacher—or just go practice what they have learned for a few years in everyday life). We should have no ‘acolytes’ ever, least of all those who cover up their messes from the public, attack critics in workshops and online, and act as apologists for any abuses.
We never form an (abusive or neglectful) parent and (traumatized) child dynamic with our students/clients. This relationship will disable, disempower, and diminish everyone in the system. So the teacher refuses sycophancy of all kinds: actively and compassionately.
Above all, we must never get high on our own supply. We always know we are always going to be vulnerable and deeply flawed beings who have a Protector ready to hijack anything we do, no matter how heartfelt, and turn into something that hurts others. Hurt hearts, hurt hearts. When it’s a wisdom teacher, it is truly tainted love.
Systemic Failure In The Patriarchal Guru System
As someone who does wisdom teaching on the one hand, and transformational innovation on the other, I have come to realize that the issues of guru abuse are symptoms of “fails” in the teacher-pupil paradigm; and guru-disciple business model that underpins it.
As one of the ‘gurus’ of systems change, Peter Senge, says: never blame the person, look to transform the system. The next Buddha must be the sangha, or community. Not an individual but a network. Not a guru but a group. Not another Christ but a Circle.
The network or circle — complete with peer-powered transformation technologies — is the “antidote for, or the completion of, hierarchy” (to quote my peer coach/teacher Scott Vineberg): it flattens out command and control urges, sending power to the edges where it then empowers everyone to switch on and step up with their own transformations.
As teachers, we insight-share and space-hold to create the conditions by which others within the group or circle can heal ruptures in their relational fields. We teach people tools and practices by which clients/students can work with their peers (family, colleagues, lovers, friends, fellow students) to do the inner work together.
We harness our disciplined practice of, and nuanced knowledge about, meditation, music, movement, and more to help people integrate their realizations and revelations into their body, and embed them into life. But we always know that we are peers in the network/circle/sangha.
Wisely designed peer-to-peer systems allow everyone to work with other humans to free themselves from old patterns and embed new repatterns into their leadership and love lives.
In peer-powered horizontal networks, those in vertical positions atop pyramids, whether CEOs or gurus, have to give up power to the people (whilst still being confident yet humble leaders). They support the people from below: with servant, supportive, stewardship.
In a transformational network/group /circle /community, many people have some of the truth. They can, and must, share it with others. This is their purpose calling them to act. To be of service they teach with love about love. They can even be paid for it. After all, those diapers don’t pay for themselves. Teachers amplify the potentiality for the wholeness of those they serve.
Showing Up Whole
There is still very much a role for an embodied wisdom teacher within this network-sangha, as long as we see ourselves as one in a node in a network, or one a point within a circle.
True wisdom teachers of the 21st Century don’t ever seek to rise up to the top of the outdated pyramid of hierarchy (literally, “rule by the priests”); or seek to sit upon the apex pontificating to subordinates and preaching to acolytes. Sure they teach. Sure they write. Sure they send out Youtube videos and podcast interviews. But they never take their mission too seriously even as they know it is the most important thing on the planet bar none.
If we are going to ride the wide-open plains of the unregulated wild (wild) West of wisdom teaching/coaching/healing, it is essential that we surround ourselves not with people stuck in a “fawning” protective pattern (wanting to be loved or find a rescuer) but those who love us and can act as peer-supervisors: they see us as awesome yet deeply flawed human beings
Given the trappings of power, and the evolutionary design of the Protector to grab onto it to feel safe, I believe that it is essential that every teacher surrounds themselves with friends, lovers—and above all peers—who do not drink their Kool-Aid (or at least are not addicted to it); are delighted to burst their bubbles (lovingly, in-service); and can elegantly coach them on their blindspots to become ever more purposeful.
I take to heart the Jewish mystical saying: don’t take up too much space but don’t take up too little either. Suffering is everywhere. People are yearning for support, for inspiration, and for guidance. If we have teachings and practices that can alleviate the suffering—after years and years of our own humbling stumbling—then our dharma is to offer it to others as a teacher/healer. Nothing else can suffice
Yet no matter how much other-worldly spiritual brilliance and “crazy wisdom” we (profess to) have, we must also have this-worldly integrity and old-fashioned social morality: we pay money back if it’s owed; we show up on time to meetings, always respecting others time as much as our own; we don’t cheat on our partners; polyamory is consciously consensual by all parties (with no-one really wishing they were in committed monogamy); we can be relied upon to change diapers and be present for our children’s bathtime; we are transparent about our business dealings and happy to explain all and any profits; we are ready to own our own contribution to anyone’s upset.
This means we must be embodied wisdom teachers, not disembodied minds competing for attention in the gurusphere. We are congruent and coherent: our everyday actions and emotions align with our wise words and wonderful philosophies. We know deep down that whilst we package up and share teachings, we don’t “own” them (and such teaching are never a complete system that has no fragilities or frailties).
Embodied wisdom teachers walk the Middle Way between nihilism and absolutism, between hubris and humility, between chutzpah and chochmah: modern-day bodhisattvas vowed to spread the love… without the need for big paybacks in Rolls Royces, Youtube likes, or adulating crowds
If we as a wisdom teacher, of all people, can’t laugh at how our Protector has taken control of the ship, and release our protective patterning go quickly as we can transform it in real-time with presence, then we are clearly hooked on our own supply. Time to stop teaching and start learning again!
Footstool vs. Pedestal Theory
Perhaps embodied wisdom teaching starts, and possibly ends, with being able to come into an open-hearted, reciprocal, and interdependent relationship (then dialogue) with anyone, without needing to be on a pedestal of any kind.
In other words, we can be with any human (and element of nature) without needing to be mysterious, hard to reach, inaccessible, or hidden behind acolytes or media walls—and without grasping for higher status with passively aggressive ways of teaching.
We teachers must sit atop a footstool from time to time: just above others to be seen fully. Otherwise, people won’t get much value from us. Students/clients cannot see who is speaking and sharing. They cannot connect with us or relate to us as we are blurred by the crowd. They probably cannot hear us either.
But we never sit atop a pedestal (nor a fancy throne), no matter how tempting it may be to the Protector within us. When people provide us with such a pedestal—literally, metaphorically, or metaphysically—we resist its siren song with all our healing/wholing heart.
For the Connector within, the One that actually does the real teaching and healing, is always a learner. So we are always ready to jettison the footstool in a heartbeat, handing it off to a peer as we melt back into the community, from whence we came, to learn again.
Whenever The Protector is in command, the Connector must be invited back in to heal, transform, and start over with what the Buddhists call “beginner’s mind”.
The true embodied wisdom master is a perpetual pupil because life, and so consciousness, is always dynamic, growing, and changing.
Thus we can move from floor to footstool—and back again—in an instant: always ready to serve, always ready to observe.
The Atman/Brahman within, the wisdom teacher we all have inside, is a node in the network of humanity—and all life. It is the jewel within Indra’s vast net. Anyone can call anybody out on anything (patterns, amorality, lack of integrity), at anytime (with respect and responsibility).
There are no disciples to abuse. There are no acolytes to enable us. There are no gurus to break bad.