How to Spot a Sketchy Spiritual Guru
A practical guide based on the history of cults gone wrong
When followers of the innovative guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh discovered that guns, poisoning, and intimidation were used in their teacher’s name, as depicted in the captivating Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country, many felt bewildered and lost. Few experiences are more jarring than betrayal by a spiritual guru or his designees—figures you trust with your inner development and whose own inner growth you take for granted.
I have never suffered betrayal by a spiritual teacher — but I have come close. Years ago, I was involved with a deeply esoteric and intellectually rigorous group dedicated to the search for meaning. My teacher was a powerful, charismatic man with a tremendous mind and heart — and a temper to match. He had suffered catastrophes in life, none of his own making, and, at times, I wondered if his judgment had begun to slip as a result. This was no small matter in a group whose internal culture was not infrequently confrontative and demanding; students were occasionally asked to take physical risks.
One night in a group meeting, he jokingly (and foolishly) interrupted me while I was making a point. I was speaking about something personally significant, and I refused to finish speaking after his interruption. He insisted I go on. Again I refused. He pressed me. I glanced at the door, then back at him, realizing then that I could just get up and leave. I chose instead to avert a dramatic scene, and I obeyed him — I spoke. But I vowed it would be for the last time. Later that week, I cut our ties. I was not being abused or pushed around, but I would not allow the prospect to come any closer.
My teacher and I remained in touch. He paid me what I considered the ultimate tribute in trust by asking me, as someone who had left in disgruntlement, to speak one-on-one with potential new participants. Whether he was also attempting to flatter me made no difference. It was an act of vulnerability that made him a great teacher at his finest moments, and there were many. He died about five months later. We never fully reconciled, but at the same time I had never fully left him. It was simply a matter of separating when I saw the swelling up of an…