Walk With Me (#34): Their Path Doesn’t Have To Be Your Path

An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.

Dear Asha,

Let me start by saying I am a fan of spiritual growth in whatever form best suits you. I start there because I am feeling very judgmental and this doesn’t sit well with me.

I have a few friends who are working with spiritual teachers, life coaches, and other such self-declared gurus… all who have some snippet of the answer for a small fee. I am wanting to be supportive of these friends and what is important to them (AND I kinda think it’s all bullshit so there is no way I am sharing it.)

So here’s the question, I can happily wish them well in their varied endeavors, but what do I do when they ask me to share about it or donate? Or worse if they directly ask why I haven’t? This is important to them and I don’t want to be dismissive.

DMA

Dear DMA,

I think there are a few things going on here, so let me try to pull them all apart. Stay with me.

First, our modern Western culture does not actually provide, in the main, any institutions through which folks who are drawn to a more mystical experience of the Divine, or a more grounded, nature or Earth-based spiritual practice, to find a place for themselves. In fact, institutions like religious organizations are often the antithesis of that kind of direct experience because they are designed to mediate and contain the uncontainable, which is the infinite experience of Spirit (or God, if you’re down with that language).

The benefit of an established, formal institutional framework is it can provide some accountability and support for leaders to continuously discern whether or not they are leading and teaching well. Therapists, who in some respects provide the kind of support and guidance that would have come in the past from a religious figure (pastor, priest, rabbi, imam), are also required to receive training and their own outside support or supervision.

Folks who put themselves forward as spiritual teachers, life coaches, and such don’t necessarily have to submit to any kind of formal training or outside accountability. They may follow a certain lineage of teachers, or subscribe to specific modalities of healing or practice, but they may just be making it up as they go along. This doesn’t mean that they are necessarily spinning a bunch of bullshit. There is much wisdom to be found far outside the confines of formal religion or therapy. People have been worshipping and seeking for thousands of years longer than any current mainstream religious institutions have existed, finding meaning and purpose and ecstasy. These are deep human needs, and there are infinite paths to meet them.

At the same time, I think anyone who moves in spiritual or self-help/self-development circles, who is seeking wisdom or teaching out in the wild, so to speak, needs to develop a healthy skepticism. In my opinion, any good practitioner or teacher encourages that. They’re not looking for blind devotion or to be anyone’s God replacement. They just have insight or skills to share that they hope will be of use.

And it’s okay for them to charge money for that in order to support themselves without having to additionally manage a “day job”. Students, however, need to be clear with themselves about what they’re investing, and whether or not they are, through that investment, developing a stronger, clearer sense of self and purpose separate from the teacher. Are they being encouraged to stand on their own two feet and continue to walk their own path wherever it leads, or are they being encouraged to climb into their teacher’s lap and release responsibility for themselves and their resources? The former is empowerment. The latter is exploitation and infantilism.

This brings me to the second thing, which is that you may be someone who is firmly focused on developing your own inner authority. For those of us, and I include myself in this company, for who becoming our own authority is a deep driver in our inner workings, the idea of submitting to a teacher or any kind of outside authority rankles. I have had teachers over the course of my life, but either they were clear on their temporary and finite role and did not encourage my devotion beyond the specific class or skill-sharing they were offering, or I just reached the point where I’d learned what I needed to and moved beyond them.

The world is vast. The questions it forces us to grapple with are endless. Some people just want someone else to give them the answers — to define their path, and their practice. They prefer to submit to someone else’s authority. And, again, that’s okay, as long as their teacher is only providing a structure or a container for learning and not a prison that they are actively prevented or discouraged from leaving.

You may also be someone, like me, who is less attached to the need for belonging outside yourself. Not everyone is on that kind of singular path in this life. Some folks need to feel a part of something; they are looking to be a member of a tribe that is all on the same path. For sure, some teachers prey on this need and exploit it, while others simply meet it by building a community around themselves. Your friends have to figure out for themselves which kind of teachers they’re dealing with.

Also, that dedication to a more singular path has its own pitfalls. It makes me fiercely determined and self-directed, but also sometimes poor at making space for community work and obligation. Being part of community matters; we are social creatures, remember. Those folks who are strongly motivated by a need to belong to a group are a necessary and important part of keeping us all together in the grand scheme of things.

So, finally, to wind around to your question about support, sharing, and donating. I think the key is to release some of your judgment on other people’s paths because they aren’t yours to navigate. If they aren’t being coerced, then you have to respect their free will. From that place of respect and non-judgment, you can look at what they are asking of you on a case-by-case basis and think critically about whether or not you think the information you would be sharing is potentially of service to other people in your network. I sometimes share classes and teaching via my various platforms that I think are interesting or cool, even if they’re not my thing per se, because I suspect they may be the thing of someone I know. But if there’s nothing that’s interesting or resonant for me about it, then I don’t share it and I don’t donate.

We should be free to choose our path in this life, as long as we’re not hurting anyone else. If you can let go of any guilt that you feel for having boundaries around your support of them that honors your path, then you open the door for them to also have some boundaries about the support they require to honor theirs. If they haven’t asked for you to explain yourself, which it seems like maybe they haven’t, then I think you’re just creating unnecessary suffering by feeling guilty about something that isn’t a problem for anyone but you.

Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.

XO, Asha

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.

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Asking questions, telling stories, giving my people information they can use to make change happen.

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