In the modern spiritual landscape, we seem to be outgrowing abusive and hierarchical power structures and beginning to realize that we do not need intermediaries to stand between us and our own Divinity and Truth. The last few years have witnessed a letting go of archaic and often abusive power structures and a shift toward greater equality. Recently, the #MeToo movement, along with many scandals within the Catholic Church and various Buddhist, Yogic, Islamic, and other religious organizations, have demanded that we all look more closely at how we as spiritual teachers relate to our students and communities.
It would be easy to create a list of fallen gurus, teachers, priests, or political figures, but blaming and judging will simply not lead us forward. Blame and judgment are rarely productive. And because we are all human beings subject to confusion and desire, and are eternally fallible, the authors of such a list might one day find themselves on it.
Rather than casting stones at those who have “sinned”, our communities need to understand why this pattern of abuse or confusion has arisen repeatedly, and how to end this cycle. The APST is a response to the need for a greater awareness of ethics, and a space for both education and support. It is a space to begin to ask:
- Do I live and work by clear ethical guidelines?
- Do I know how to respond appropriately to difficult or psychologically messy situations involving students, parishioners or clients?
- Do I know how to work with others with a high degree of professionalism and care, while simultaneously respecting confidentiality?
- Do I have clear boundaries for myself and those with whom I work?
Counselors, psychologists, and psychotherapists are trained extensively in ethics, how to respect appropriate boundaries and confidentiality, and how to respond to difficult or confusing interpersonal relationships. But spiritual teachers often offer very similar work and meet with others in a deep, vulnerable and profound space, yet rarely are trained in the very complex work of holding space for healing or spiritual unfoldment. Most spiritual teachers also lack training in how to work with transference, countertransference, projection, or working with the shadow. It is because of this lack of education in setting boundaries, knowing one’s limits, or professional competency in the realm of ethics that so many spiritual teachers, students and communities find themselves in confusing or psychologically difficult scenarios and/or in great pain.
As a therapist and spiritual teacher who works with clients, students and teachers from all the great spiritual traditions, I have unfortunately heard too many stories of tremendous pain or confusion which arose between teachers and students. Such pain might have been avoided had the teacher or priest known about or respected professional boundaries and ethics. Tragically, in response to the pain or abuse they experienced within their church or spiritual center, students have often abandoned their spiritual path for a decade or more. As teachers, we have a precious responsibility to show up in a professional manner and to hold a container of both Love and clarity.
The APST was established to support teachers in gaining deeper professionalism in how they relate to students. As a young graduate student, I learned that we all live by an inner code of ethics. Yet for most of us, this code has not been fully examined or tested and is often rooted in an unconscious aspect of our being. We may proclaim that we live by the Golden Rule and advocate “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you”. But the study of ethics is not simplistic. It strives to cover in a nuanced way the vast, complex, messy experience of being human. The Golden Rule may be thought of as a core guideline from which a more thorough and detailed ethical code may be derived – one which can prepare us to respond with great care, compassion and professionalism in a variety of difficult situations before those situations arise.
Hopefully, this study will help us mature in the ability to better serve those who look to us for guidance.