Anyone not in the habit of frequenting the marketplace of independent, unattached spiritual teachers may be unfamiliar with the name Marc Gafni.

I had never heard of Mr. Gafni before the beginning of this year when he suddenly erupted on the landscape of freewheeling spiritual teachers dogged by a history of scandal and controversy. If you are unfamiliar with Mr. Gafni’s reputation, these recent pieces will bring you up to speed.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/26/us/marc-gafni-center-for-integral-wisdom.html?_r=0

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/marc-gafni-denies-sexual-misconduct-allegations-article-1.2483567

I have never met Mr. Gafni, have not read his books, or listened to his teaching. I have no ability to adjudicate on Mr. Gafni’s guilt or innocence. I am not interested in trial by internet, or condemnation on the basis of hearsay.

But, whether or not Gafni is guilty, the story presently swirling around him, offers an important cautionary tale with significant lessons to which anyone functioning in the independent spiritual realm would be wise to pay attention. And Terry Patten seems to be just the man to draw out some of the important issues to which this difficult story points.

Mr. Patten is a coach, consultant, teacher, and author of four books. He lives in Marin County near San Francisco, CA. and blogs at: http://www.terrypatten.com/

Mr. Patten begins with a warning to those who find themselves drawn to leap into the drama of condemnation saying,

the fevered tone of the opprobrium that’s being heaped on him. Some of those attacking Marc tell hair-raising stories of psychological control and abuse. Many ugly dynamics come into play. Male authority figures (especially spiritual teachers) accused of sexual misdeeds are often “guilty until proven innocent” in the court of public opinion. Sexual misconduct can be the “new witchcraft” of our contemporary Salem witch trials. Many who have spoken up seem to buy completely into a narrative of victimization. And the tone of the critique seems to have no room for complexity, nuance, or shared responsibility.

Patten has written a 5,000 word reflection on the Marc Gafni situation. Patten’s words are thoughtful and profound and should be read in their entirety by anyone connected in any way with spiritual teaching as either a student or teacher, especially if the teacher is functioning independently and depends largely on the internet for connection. Patten’s essay can be read here: http://www.terrypatten.com/blog/on-marc-gafni

Before launching into his long essay, Mr. Patten warns that there is a “denial of shadow in contemporary spiritual culture.”

Traditional religious institutions have suffered for hundreds of years, from a “denial of shadow.” It is sobering and tragic to see contemporary spiritual movements and teachers that have so often sprung up in reaction to traditional religion’s unwillingness to face its shadow side, falling prey to the very error they so rightly critique.

Many spiritual practitioners are all too aware of the short-comings of traditional institutional embodiments of spiritual teaching. Mr. Patten with considerable courage, honesty, and clarity acknowledges the risks inherent for independent spiritual teachers who are gaining large followings around the world. Patten writes:

We have no formal elders or wisdom council, so there will be no official integral response. This leaves everyone who is interested in integral evolutionary philosophy, spirituality and practice on their own to discern amidst an avalanche of strong perspectives.

This raises the obvious question of accountability and authority.

Where does responsibility lie when it is time to warn the public about the dangers of a compelling charismatic teacher who may not have been formally charged for any illegal conduct but appears to pose a risk to unsuspecting spiritual seekers? Does anyone have the right, the power, or the ability to place parameters around independent spiritual teachers and to assess their suitability to hold the post of teacher? Where does accountability lie when a compelling, powerful, persuasive teacher appears to be headed off the rails?

What safeguards are there that might preserve the integrity of spiritual teaching against the potential manipulation, abuse, and distortion an independent and charismatic teacher can bring?

Later in his essay, Patten himself asks,

  • How can the precious wisdom gems at the center of these enterprises be protected and defended? 

These are important questions that emerge from the inevitable failures that will arise as spiritual teachers are given credibility and power by those who feel they have found enlightenment and liberation through their beloved guru. Everything is fine as long as the teacher is not using the teaching for personal gain and self-aggrandizement. But who is responsible for vulnerable students when the guru abuses his or her position of trust?

For those who may lack the patience to plough through 5,000 words, I will try to excerpt some of the most pertinent points from Mr. Patten’s article (accompanied inevitably by a few comments) for as many posts as it seems to require. But please read and ponder deeply Mr. Patten’s thoughts in their entirety at: http://www.terrypatten.com/blog/on-marc-gafni.

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