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Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship

Originally published as
Berzin, Alexander. Relating to a Spiritual Teacher:
Building a Healthy Relationship
.
Ithaca, Snow Lion, 2000

Reprint: Wise Teacher, Wise Student: Tibetan Approaches to a Healthy Relationship. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2010

Order this book directly from Snow Lion Publications

Part III: Unhealthy Relationships
with Spiritual Teachers

17 Generational and Life Cycle Issues

Stages in the Contemporary Life Cycle

In New Passages, Sheehy explained that the stages of the human life cycle vary according to socioeconomic class and the conditions of the times. Using this thesis, she discovered a new paradigm for the adult life cycle of contemporary, middle-class or semi-affluent, socially mobile, educated Caucasian-Americans. The paradigm contains three stages: provisional, first, and second adulthood.

Sheehy then analyzed the manner in which each of the current generations within this group has been passing through the three stages. Her proposition is that understanding the behavior of people from this socioeconomic class requires placing them within the context of their generations and their stages in life. Moreover, she contended that Canadian, Latin American, Western European, and Australasian members of this mobile class are fast approaching a similar pattern of threefold adulthood. In each country, however, cultural factors will modify the pattern as it emerges.

Most spiritual seekers who go to Western middle-class Dharma centers in the United States fall into the class of people that Sheehy analyzed. Sheehy's scheme provides a useful analytical tool for understanding some of the problems that these people have encountered in building relationships with spiritual teachers. It may also be relevant for understanding problems that may arise in the future in other subcultures, both in the United States and elsewhere.

Provisional adulthood is a prolonged adolescence characterized by experimentation and noncommitment to either a career or a marriage. It lasts through one's twenties. The times in which it occurs tend to set the general tone for the rest of one's life. First adulthood follows from around thirty to the mid-forties, during which one tries to prove oneself through a career and/or raising a family. Second adulthood then begins in the mid-forties, starting with "middlescence," a period of experimentation akin to a second adolescence, from the mid-forties to around fifty. During this period, one may be laid off or forced into early retirement and one's children may be away at college. An age of mastery follows until the mid-sixties, often with a new career or a new life partner. One may find a new synthesis of one's life that brings more fulfillment. After sixty-five comes an age of integrity during which one no longer feels the need to prove oneself and can enjoy the synthesis that one has found.

The generation that has consistently comprised the majority of spiritual seekers attracted to Tibetan Buddhism in the United States has been the Baby Boomer or Vietnam Generation, born from the mid-forties to the mid-fifties. A far smaller proportion has come from the Me Generation, born from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties, and even less from Generation X or the Endangered Generation, born from the mid-sixties to around 1980. Let us examine how factors of generation, life stage, and the times have affected the approach of these groups to spiritual practice and their relationships with their spiritual teachers.

Stages in the Spiritual Life History of Baby Boomers

A belief that things can be perfect has set the emotional tone characteristic of the Baby Boomer Generation. Thus, during a prolonged adolescence of noncommitment in the late 1960s and through much of the seventies, many of them experimented with new alternatives. Often, they did so as a rebellion against restriction by their parents or because of the pressures of the Vietnam War. Typically, they rebelled against the traditional religion, culture, or values into which they were born, or against a combination of the three. In many cases, the rebellion led to an attraction to Tibetan Buddhism.

A lack of serious economic pressure allowed the idealism characteristic of being in their twenties to bubble over into romantic idealization of the Tibetans, their culture, and Buddhism. This led to a romanticization of Tibetan masters, fostered by relatively easy access to the lineage heads and the greatest lamas of the time. Inadequate translation and sparse reading materials further allowed for idealization and fantasy. Consequently, the relationships that most seekers built with mentors were unrealistic. A number of Baby Boomers, in fact, went to teachings in the seventies while under the influence of psychedelics or recreational drugs.

During first adulthood in the 1980s, Baby Boomers became achievers. Wishing to gain approval from their Buddhist teachers and peers, many tried to prove themselves by making a hundred thousand prostrations, doing long retreats, performing ornate rituals (Skt. pujas), studying in Geshe training programs, or serving their mentors devotedly by building and working in Dharma centers. The spirit of unbridled, self-centered achievement that characterized the eighties in the United States fanned the "spiritual materialism" of the day.

Because the Baby Boomers, often subject to low self-esteem, were trying to justify their worthiness, they tended to project that their teachers were judging them. Many unconsciously felt that they needed to perform in order to establish their self-worth and to win acceptance and love. Some also felt an element of competition with fellow seekers. They felt that they had to outshine the others in devotion or in the number of prostrations they made. Cliques of "inner-circle" disciples formed around the major Tibetan teachers in the West. The disciple-mentor relationship became increasingly unhealthy.

Middlescence came to the Baby Boomers in the 1990s, coinciding with the emergence of scandals and controversies involving spiritual teachers. Learning of several famous mentors' abusive behavior or involvement in heated disputes with each other, many Baby Boomers either experienced disillusion or went into denial. Seeing the flaws of the Tibetan Buddhist system and the discredit of several of its leading stars was extremely traumatic. It resembled the shock of seeing themselves or their peers' contracting cancer or their parents' coming down with Alzheimer's disease.

Many Baby Boomers shed the rigid false self of a spiritual achiever and became lax in meditation and practice commitments. They emotionally distanced themselves from their relationships with their spiritual mentors, both those still living and those already passed away. As with a second adolescence, many became experimental and looked toward psychology and other disciplines for methods to handle their midlife crises. The breakdown of rigid categories that characterized the nineties fanned their searches for new models of spiritual practice.

As Baby Boomers progressed into second adulthood in the late nineties, many rediscovered the dormant values that they had suppressed with the spiritual-achievement dynamic of their first adulthood. They found the sensibility and practicality of their Western cultures and gained a sense of self-worth from these positive aspects. Having entered the age of mastery, some have gained the spiritual self-confidence to integrate their experiences into new syntheses. They have reached levels of maturity that would enable them to relate in healthier ways to their spiritual mentors and to approach their meditation practices more realistically. Success in this endeavor depends on their openness to inspiration from their spiritual mentors.

The Spiritual Life History of the Me Generation

Members of the Me Generation came to Tibetan Buddhism as provisional adults during the 1980s. The emotional tone of their generation has been set by the wish to have everything. Because opportunities abounded to make money quickly, fewer of them were drawn to Buddhism than were members of the preceding generation. The spirit of the eighties in the United States fostered greed and professionalism. Young people with capital, talent, and favorable socioeconomic backgrounds felt that any effort to get ahead would guarantee easy success. As part of their prolonged adolescence during this decade, members of the Me Generation rebelled against the impractical, hippie romantic mentality and applied themselves to acquiring money, goods, and experiences. Regarding happiness as a commodity, many idealistically felt that they could buy it.

People from this generation who followed spiritual paths often applied themselves with equal narcissistic focus on the practices. They set about "collecting merit" with the same attitudes they held in accumulating collections of music tapes and designer clothing. Many expected to gain and have everything, without emotional commitment and, as symbolized by the answering machine, without intimacy. Carrying these attitudes into their relationships with spiritual mentors, many idealized their teachers as means for getting spiritually ahead and used them to collect more merit, but without actually opening their hearts to them.

In the nineties, the Me Generation faced the scandals and controversies as achievers in first adulthood. Many felt robbed of what they had wanted to achieve in the spiritual sphere and, sorely disillusioned, turned to winning success in business and in raising families. Others became incensed and applied themselves ardently to achieving the downfall of abusive mentors. Those who kept up their spiritual practices followed the spirit of the nineties and dropped rigid models. Many emotionally distanced themselves further from their mentors and went only infrequently to Dharma centers.

The Spiritual Path of Generation X

Very few members of Generation X sought spiritual paths during their prolonged adolescence and provisional adulthood in the nineties. Several factors contributed to this happening. AIDS, unemployment, and environmental disaster endangered prospects for a secure future. Leaders on all levels of society were involved in lies and scandals. Consequently, most members of this generation felt it impossible to trust anything or anyone, especially the integrity of people in positions supposedly of respect. Many resigned themselves to expecting that everything and everyone would let them down, as perhaps they felt that their parents had done when divorcing or leaving them in day care when they were young. When they learned of scandal and controversy among Buddhist spiritual leaders, they thought, "What do you expect?" Naturally, most felt little draw or need to build a relationship with a spiritual mentor.

In keeping with the spirit of the nineties and the ethos of prolonged adolescence, members of Generation X rebelled against rigid models. Most adopted a "whatever" attitude, which set the tone for the generation. Anything was OK; nothing really mattered. Many felt their idealism quashed. They experimented with whatever, without committing themselves, since commitment surely would lead to disappointment. Many felt comfortable to communicate only at safe distances, through email or under fantasized identities in chat rooms. They could simply turn off the computer or not reply if someone disappointed them.

Members of Generation X who went to Dharma centers often carried these attitudes with them. Many felt comfortable only in large Buddhist organizations in which the head lamas either visited rarely or had already passed away. Being in centers away from the head lamas and under the substitute care of less qualified junior teachers may have unconsciously reminded them of being in day care centers away from their parents. If they had felt at ease to do whatever in day care, away from parents whom they felt would leave them there regardless of how they behaved, then, with large distances between themselves and the head lamas, they could feel at ease to do whatever at the center. Since the head lamas would ignore them anyway and the local spiritual teachers were not their real lamas, there was no need to open to deep relationships with either of them.

Those who did open their hearts and minds often projected images from their unconscious of someone totally structured and reliable onto the head lamas. They idealized them, but from safe emotional distances, and sometimes became fanatic and rigid in structured practice. Unable to integrate their own unconscious good qualities, many maintained a "whatever" attitude in other aspects of their lives.

Avoiding Problems Typified by Provisional Adulthood

Although each generation experiences each stage of adulthood slightly differently depending on culture and the times, the basic structure of each stage suggests a particular form of unhealthy relationship with a spiritual teacher. Various elements of sutra-level guru-meditation indicate methods for possibly avoiding or overcoming those dangers.

Provisional adulthood suggests the problem of idealizing and romanticizing a spiritual mentor, while keeping an uncommitted emotional distance. When idealization and characteristically Western confusion join forces, disciples typically experience low self-esteem as part of their conscious personalities and project ideal perfection. Thus, romantic idealization of a mentor – especially when coupled with seeing the person as a Buddha – often entails inflating the actual good qualities the mentor has or interpolating positive features that he or she lacks. It may also entail denying the teacher's actual shortcomings and faults.

Placing the mentor on an unreachable pedestal enables adulation from a safe emotional distance. In other words, because the emotion of adulation – similar to romantic love – focuses on a superhuman object, it may be intense and exciting. However, it lacks the deeper, relaxed intimacy that comes from accepting someone despite his or her faults. Thus, although personal factors play a role, emotional distance often derives from relating to a fantasy, rather than to an actual person. After all, relating to a fantasy of perfection is safer than risking disappointment, betrayal, or abandonment when relating to an actual teacher with both strong and weak points. The unconscious emotional distancing can occur whether the teacher is resident at a Dharma center or visits only rarely.

Focusing on the good qualities of a teacher in sutra-level guru-meditation, however, is not romantic idealization. It focuses on the actual qualities of the person, without aggrandizing or adding anything. Moreover, it acknowledges the person's faults, also without inflating or fabricating any aspects. A lack of interpolation or denial also applies to seeing that the mentor functions as a Buddha or that he or she is a Buddha. In either case, the pure vision recognizes and labels a mentor's positive features as Buddha-qualities and sees their foundation in Buddha-nature. It does this, however, without invalidating an accurate accounting of the person's conventional assets and shortcomings. In short, conviction in a mentor's factual qualities and appreciation for his or her actual kindness help to prevent the distance created by romanticization. Thus, they allow for a deeper-reaching emotional relationship.

To avoid the problems of idealization, it may be helpful to adapt the deconstruction methods used in sutra-level guru-meditation regarding a mentor's shortcomings. After gaining a realistic view of a mentor's weak points, we would bring to mind the impression we have of his or her good qualities and kindness and try to discriminate between our projections and fact. Peeling off projections is always a difficult task because our minds make them appear to be factual and we believe them to be so. The process requires considerable firsthand experience with the mentor and deep introspection. Nevertheless, once we have cleared away conventionally inaccurate projections, we would then focus on the conventionally accurate features as devoid of existing as inherent wonders. Then, we would be ready to focus on them with conviction and appreciation.

By dispelling naivety, such a procedure may facilitate becoming clearheaded about the mentor. It may also enhance a conviction in the qualities, based on understanding their dependently arising nature, and confidence that we may attain them ourselves. Further, when free of confusion, a tendency toward idealization may then be an asset. Because the tendency leads to looking up to something, it may help us to gain inspiration from our mentors' actual qualities and kindness. The unconscious mechanism to defend ourselves from certain emotions may then help us to maintain a conscious distance from immature feelings toward our mentors. It may also help us to avoid committing ourselves to unhealthy relationships. Such harnessing of idealization and emotional distancing accords with the Kadam lojong advice to turn potentially negative circumstances into positive ones.

Avoiding Problems Typified by First Adulthood

The characteristic psychological feature of first adulthood is the drive to establish oneself. When coupled with the confusion of low self-esteem, transference, and inflation of a teacher, the drive may become an obsession with proving one's worth. One feels unconsciously compelled to perform in order to please a judgmental parent figure and to gain acceptance and approval.

As with neurotic forms of provisional adulthood, this syndrome also interpolates fantasized qualities onto the teacher. Here, the primary delusion is considering the teacher to be a judge of our worth. This confusion often comes from unconsciously interpolating the characteristics of the supreme judge, God, when trying to see that the mentor is a Buddha. Dispelling inaccurate conventional truths about our mentors in guru-meditation may help to alleviate the problem. Also helpful would be clearing away inaccuracies concerning ourselves, such as the idea that we are unworthy. When free of the confusion that causes obsession with achievement, the drive to establish ourselves may help us to channel the mentor's inspiration to making true progress on the path.

Avoiding Problems Typified by Second Adulthood

The middlescent phase that begins second adulthood typically involves reevaluation of one's previous patterns of behavior, discarding outdated factors that no longer work, and experimenting with new models. If we have previously related to our spiritual mentors in unhealthy manners or have discovered serious faults in them, we may forsake not only the mentors, but also the entire spiritual path. If, however, we correctly identify the sources of unhealthiness in the relationships, we may correct improprieties and go beyond the unsatisfying plateaus we may have reached in our practices.

During the age of mastery within second adulthood, people typically reintegrate the legacies of their past into new syntheses. If we have been dwelling on the faults and shortcomings of our mentors, we run the danger of unconsciously being loyal to their negative aspects and passing that on to the next generation. This may occur whether or not we discard the relationships with our teachers. For example, we may be emotionally dishonest with younger disciples. We may pretend to have qualities that we lack.

Further, disciples in second adulthood may regress and degenerate to earlier stages of behavior, such as intensely competing to outachieve junior practitioners and emotionally distancing themselves from any commitment to offer them help. If, however, we have focused properly on our mentors' good qualities, the new syntheses may incorporate the positive legacies we have gained. We may take full advantage of this phase of life by encouraging and nurturing the next generation.

Those in Second Adulthood Can Help Inspire Provisional Adults

In renouncing past patterns and finding new syntheses, disciples in second adulthood may turn primarily inward or outward. Moreover, they may do so either with or without the confusion of inflated egos. For example, turning inward, they may focus on meditation as a source of happiness, either narcissistically or in a balanced manner. Turning outward, they may seek satisfaction in tending to the needs of others, either in a stifling oppressive fashion or in a nurturing supportive way. For example, they may dominate a Dharma center or they may serve as resources of experience and advice, available for the next generation to draw upon for developing a center further.

In the present age of scandal, controversy, school violence, and AIDS, people tend to distrust everything. Thus, people who involve themselves with a spiritual path are naturally wary of trusting spiritual teachers. On the one hand, critical evaluation of a teacher before establishing a relationship is a healthy precaution and may help to avoid disappointment, harassment, or abuse. On the other hand, morbid skepticism and paranoia prevent gaining the inspiration from a qualified teacher needed to energize and sustain serious practice.

The hesitancy to commit oneself, which characterizes provisional adulthood, may create an additional emotional block for opening to a spiritual teacher during the current critical times. Second adulthood spiritual elders, however, may help younger seekers to overcome their blocks and to establish trust by becoming sources of inspiration themselves.

To inspire the younger generation, disciples in second adulthood do not need to become gurus. Instead, they may serve as second magnifying glasses to focus inspiration from the great masters they have met. Many of these masters are now inaccessible to newcomers because of either being too internationally active or having already passed away. Thus, through sutra-level guru-meditation, second adulthood disciples may focus on the good qualities of these figures to gain inspiration and then pass on positive legacies through their own examples. Doing so enables them to avoid unconsciously passing on negative legacies of neglect or abuse through spiritual narcissism or the stifling domination of a Dharma center.