Much of the power in Terry Patten’s examination of Marc Gafni, comes from the fact that Patten does not throw stones at Mr. Gafni. He uses this sad story to take an honest and probing look at himself. He uses the Gafni affair as a serious opportunity for self-examination.

Mr. Patten’s questions under the heading, “Interrogating Myself” are profound and important and should be examined by anyone operating in the realm of spiritual teaching and leadership.

After some searing self-examination, Patten acknowledges,

I have mostly felt strangely neutralized in my impulse to address the problem. I have been intimidated. I have been ineffective.

This experience of passivity, powerlessness and spiritual entropy in the face of the compelling power of an individual teacher is a certain sign that things have gone seriously astray.

So what is the way forward in response? Indeed, as Patten cogently asks, what is the

way to discernment about an unusually brilliant, talented, powerful and dangerous person, and the many knotty issues raised by his behavior.

How does a community protect itself from the potential harm a dynamic powerful spiritual has the potential to inflict? Patten points out,

No matter how smart , talented, and tenacious Marc Gafni might be, the only power he has over anyone is the power we have given him. If he has compromised our community, it’s up to us to reclaim it. It’s our responsibility to draw a clear line if we want greater goodness and moral intelligence. That’s my intent.

I wonder what Mr. Patten is suggesting here. What does it look like “to draw a clear line” in an attempt to promote “greater goodness and moral intelligence”?

Is he suggesting a psychological means test before anyone is endorsed by his community as a spiritual teacher? Is he recommending a statement of faith that must be signed before anyone qualifies to join his community? Is he aiming to enlist a cadre of thought-police? Does he want to employ morality spies to keep the faithful safe from predatory spiritual teachers?

There is a risk that, in reaction to the harm done by a manipulative spiritual master, the community circles the wagons so tightly that all spontaneity, creativity and energy are lost.

The people I have known who even approximate the kind of charisma, power and compelling energy Mr. Patten describes around Mr. Gafni have made some amazing things happen. Many people would attest that these attractive figures have been vehicles of life, vitality and creativity in their lives.

How do we preserve the brilliance, dynamism, creativity, and excitement that someone like Mr. Gafni has the ability to generate, while at the same time, being responsible to do what we can to protect innocent people who may legitimately experience serious harm from such teachers?

Is this even possible? Is it a legitimate goal?

Sanitized spirituality is an anemic thing with little life-giving power. How would Mr. Patten want his spiritual community to have dealt with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, or even GI Gurdjieff, the details of whose life and practice certainly was not universally viewed as operating entirely within the parameters of “goodness and moral intelligence.”

As Patten suggests, these questions require “nuanced perspectives” that we do not always take the time or exercise the patience to develop.  Without real perspective there is a danger that we will miss Patten’s warning that,

There is much baby worth not throwing away with the bathwater.  Marc is talented. He’s really good at everything he does. So many of us have fond memories of the loving spaces he has convened, and of loving exchanges with him. It makes sense to me how he is beloved to the people to whom he unreservedly devotes his support and affection. 

But, the danger is real:

His unexamined shadow compromises everything he associates with, so it’s undermining those remarkable philosophical ideas and this community of practice and inquiry, not serving them.

The balance between freedom and structure is enormously difficult to maintain. Those of us who have served in a situation where structure is strong and sometimes rigid, need to heed the critique of those who exercise greater freedom and push the boundaries. Those who function in a more open, less structured spiritual world, need to acknowledge the risks and take seriously the call to find accountability and exercise responsibility towards those who give them credibility and respect.

Part of growing up as a movement is being able to establish some parameters that help ensure that certain basic human values are preserved within the community. Part of remaining alive and dynamic as an established spiritual community, is to be willing to be pushed to openness by the challenge and freedom of independent spiritual teachers. We need each other.