Overcoming Guru-phobia: Forgiving spiritual teachers who have let you down


From my Psychology Today Blog:


I received a comment on a blog post I recently wrote and it got me thinking about the need to forgive spiritual teachers when we feel they have let us down.


There are teachers in spiritual traditions around the globe working to make our planet a better place. They are working to increase tolerance and understanding and promote peace, prosperity and personal growth.


Yet, spiritual teachers are human and bound to make mistakes. Some people carry wounds from past experiences with spiritual teachers. Unfortunately, the human tendency when this happens is like “gotcha” journalism – it can cause people to be so distrustful that they see negativity everywhere. People may feel that because one teacher let them down, all of them are bad. Or they find a new spiritual tradition and feel that their former one is wrong.


In the Huna tradition of ancient Hawaii there is a saying I learned from one of my kumu (teachers) Uncle George Naope. He had it posted at his hula school: A ohe pau ko ike i kou halau. The rough English translation is, “Think not that all wisdom is in your school.” By grasping this idea we are able to share ideas and concepts from many traditions with mutual respect. For me, it is a reminder that Huna is one of many paths to understanding.


There are many examples of teachers from all different spiritual traditions who have made mistakes. Sometimes, those mistakes have directly hurt their followers. When people hold onto hurt feelings from these experiences, they may attack other teachers and traditions without taking the time to learn about them.


I was fortunate to have the opportunity to begin learning Huna at the age of 13 directly from Hawaiian elders such as Uncle George. They passed down this knowledge, a gift based on thousands of years of experience, to our family. As someone who has studied and been authorized to teach from an ancient sacred tradition, I wrote these guidelines to help people find a reputable and authentic teacher:


1. Do your research. Check out the teacher’s background. A spiritual teacher should have extensive personal experience and either cultural or academic credentials. Does this person come from an established lineage? Does he or she have academic degrees from an accredited and respected university? What is the extent of the teacher’s practical, real-life experience with participants? Has he or she completed original research, participated in studies, written articles or books?


2. Beware of self-hype. Does the teacher call himself a guru? If so, he’s probably not. True spiritual teachers are humble and don’t need to puff themselves up. One of my kumu (teachers) Uncle George Naope would say, “if you have to call yourself a Kahuna, you’re probably not one.” In ancient times, these titles were given, not taken, and even when given, there was humbleness.


3. Check out followers. Are these the kind of people you want to associate with? Are they like-minded individuals with goals similar to your own? Are their testimonials believable? What kind of progress have they made during their course of study in the tradition you’re considering?


4. Does the safety and wellbeing of students come first? What safety precautions and procedures are in place? Are these explained thoroughly before any kind of adventure, challenge, or unusual act is undertaken? Is there an alternative for people who don’t feel up to the challenge so they can still enjoy and benefit from the experience? For 21 years now, we have been running our Huna workshop every March and September in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. During the workshop, we take our haumana (students) on a field trip and hike across the volcano. Not everyone can make the hike, so there is an alternative field trip at the volcano that is just as powerful and profound. Spiritual studies are not about pushing the limits, but finding your foundation and exploring the mana (energy) in the simplest moments.


5. Beware of autocracy. Does the teacher demand that you follow him to the exclusion of all other teachers or paths? If so, that is a red flag that should alert you to stay away. Teachers who are secure with themselves and their teachings encourage their students to discover knowledge on their own and not to take their word as “the truth.” A trustworthy leader asks that students check in with themselves to find their own inner knowledge.


6. Look for openness. Does the teacher encourage you to find your own voice and path? Does he or she create a safe space for participants to voice their fears, concerns or questions?


7. Does the teacher “walk the talk?” This goes back to doing your homework. Research the teacher’s background and talk to people who have been through the training to determine if the leader practices what he teaches. Does he lead an exemplary life? Is he honest about his mistakes?


8. Beware of false promises. The old adage applies here: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t be afraid to question the claims being made. An authentic spiritual teacher will not be threatened and will take the time to answer your questions.


9. Understand your expectations. What do you hope to get out of the training? It is a good idea to write this down beforehand and to discuss it with the teacher to assure your expectations are realistic and aligned with the benefits of the teaching.


10. Respect your limits. Be aware of any physical or other constraints that might affect your participation and discuss them beforehand with the teacher. If you have specific needs, make them known so the teacher can accommodate them if possible. Above all take care of yourself and pay attention to signs of fatigue, illness or concern. You are the ultimate guardian of your health and happiness.


Finally, when considering something as important as spiritual training, you should trust your gut, even in cases where you research the leader and the program you plan to attend, and pay attention to your feelings about whether this leader and event are right for you. If you are feeling ill at ease or experiencing spiritual discord, listen to those cues.


All teachers should not be mistrusted because of the mistakes of a few. Whatever has happened in the past, people need to forgive. Holding on to hurt feelings only leads to bitterness and distrust that can cause people to miss out on future opportunities to grow and learn.


On the other hand, if people are able to acknowledge and then release past hurts, they will remain open to learning from the many diverse and wonderful spiritual traditions of humanity. The more we are able to forgive, the more freedom we will experience – freedom to embrace the present and the future without the past weighing us down. That’s what forgiveness is all about.




Matthew B. James, MA, Ph.D., is President of Kona University and its training and seminar division The Empowerment Partnership, where he serves as a master trainer of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), a practical behavioral technology for helping people achieve their desired results in life. His new book, The Foundation of Huna: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times, details forgiveness and meditation techniques used in Hawaii for hundreds of years. He carries on the lineage of one of the last practicing kahuna of mental health and wellbeing. To reach Dr. James, please e-mail him at info@Huna.com.