Here are some recommendations from contemplative psychotherapy for working with transgressions by or painful break with a spiritual teacher while avoiding overidealization, shame, or blame. Begin by establishing safety and inviting self-compassion; then cultivate discernment and insight; and finally embody realistic compassion for others. Getting the progression right avoids spiritual bypassing.
1. Don’t abandon yourself.
The Buddha recommended that we defer to our own experience after a full and critical evaluation of any teacher and teaching. If your intuition tells you something is off, is wrong, or is hurtful, acknowledge and trust that—even (and especially) when no one else will. Be your own advocate. Devotion or allegiance shouldn’t override common sense. The purpose of the student-teacher relationship is to empower the nascent guru within you, and this includes developing your ability to recognize contradictory and uncomfortable feelings. After a violation, it’s important to establish a safe distance, honor your pain with self-compassion, and then honestly and independently assess the factors and consequences with wise discernment. Finally, when you are ready, speak and embody your truth. If you can’t follow this process on your own, find someone who is neutral, impartial, and trustworthy, such as a counselor, who can help you find the requisite safe space to sort it all out.
2. Recognize that it’s not your fault
Trauma and breaches of trust blindside us. Our knee-jerk reaction is often to assume the burden of responsibility and blame as we try to gain control over an unexpectedly painful situation by attempting to improve or repair it or to vindicate ourselves. If we did our best to evaluate
a teacher before committing to the relationship, we are not to blame for having been deceived or taken advantage of. Dependency is not the problem; the problem is human affliction, which is often unconscious and concealed. Self-blame is an internalized second aggressor that can victimize us long after the external damage is done. Self-compassion is like applying first aid to a wound and is the necessary first step to any process of healing.
3. See through appearances
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