Essay

Authentic Spirituality and the Double Binds of Power

By Duff McDuffee on May 11th, 2012

Let’s say you are a famous spiritual teacher, and someone asks you in an interview what your biggest challenge is in your life.

That’s the basis for this teleseminar series, Teaching What We Need to Learn.

The most likely answers will be things like “I get mildly angry at other drivers when I’m in my car.” This is of course not the biggest challenge the person actually has in their life, it is a harmless vice other people can relate to and won’t severely judge the person for, thus resulting in no loss of power. (See Law 46 of The 48 Laws of Power.)

This Q&A is similar to the infamous interview question, “what’s your biggest flaw?” The correct way to answer this question is to be honest yet inauthentic by framing a flaw as a strength, like “I sometimes just work so hard I forget to take care of my own needs.” Nobody ever answers this question by saying, “oh, that’s got to be my meth habit”…nobody with a job that is.

In both cases, the game is that the question appears to be about being honest and authentic to create a deeper relationship, but the subtext is that one cannot be honest and authentic or else the relationship would be threatened. In the case of the spiritual teacher, if they are honest they sacrifice their power and thus role as someone to look up to for spiritual guidance. In the case of the interviewee, honesty and authenticity would harm their prospects of employment.

But then there is a second layer which makes it a double-bind for the spiritual teachers, which is that they are expected to be actually authentic, to be radically different than smooth politicians and marketers in positions of power. We look up to them and give them power precisely because we expect them to be radically other, free from the corruptions of the world and the marketplace. So when they are asked the question, “what is your greatest challenge in life?” we expect more than an inauthentic answer. We expect a radical transparency. Anything less and the teacher is a phony just like you and I and thus has nothing to teach us about how to live.

What would constitute a radical act in this situation? I propose that a teacher could violate the rules of game by doing one of the following:

  • By actually answering authentically, disclosing something deeply embarrassing like an addiction, a moral transgression like sleeping with a student or spending money from the spiritual community on personal luxury goods. This would of course destroy their source of power by being portrayed as “other,” but could possibly save their status as a legitimate teacher. Chogyam Trungpa pulled this sort of thing off and maintained his status as a spiritual teacher, despite sleeping with married female students and drinking to excess.
  • Refuse to answer the question or participate in such an event. Emphasize that as a well-known spiritual teacher one cannot be fully transparent about one’s personal life, that this is just the nature of the role–like a psychotherapist or a politician. This risks exposing the game that is these kinds of marketing events and ensures that such a teacher will never be invited again, thus also diminishing their public power.
  • To name the game but also play it. Similar to the previous example, one could say, “I won’t say what is actually my deepest struggle because that would be personally embarrassing in this public forum. But I will give an example of a minor struggle.” This is a less radical authentic act but maintains one’s power, although also risks being kicked out of the game.
  • To mock the game by answering in an utterly over-the-top foolish way. For instance to answer the question by saying, “well, this is really embarrassing, but ok. I round up stray dogs and torture them until they are totally mean, and then I host dog fights every other Wednesday night at my ranch house. You know, you should come over some time.”
  • By actually playing the game, these teachers are identifying themselves as politicians primarily, not as spiritual teachers of authentic living, thus reinforcing power games and the notion that spiritual teachers are free from the kinds of struggles you and I experience in life.

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