What is spiritual awakening, or ‘enlightenment’? I don’t think there’s anything particularly esoteric about the state, and I don’t associate it with religions. I think of it in simple psychological terms: as a shift into a more expansive, higher-functioning state of being – a state in which we experience a strong sense of connection with the world around us and other beings, a sense of inner quietness and spaciousness, and a heightened awareness of our surroundings. I have found that it is not uncommon for people to shift into this state after intense psychological turmoil – in my book Out of the Darkness, I describe many examples of this. It is also not uncommon for people to move towards this state slowly and gradually, over many years of spiritual practice (such as meditation) or through following specific spiritual paths, such as the eightfold path of Buddhism or a monastic lifestyle.

When people attain this state, it predisposes them to more ethical behaviour. Because of the strong emphatic connection we have for other human beings, it means that we’re more likely to treat other people with compassion and fairness. It usually means that we’re less likely to exploit people for financial gain, or to use them as a means of satisfying our desires for power or sex.

However, there are many cases of spiritual teachers who do not behave in this way, who mistreat and exploit their followers, become prone to narcissism and megalomania, and whose personal lives are sullied by excess and impropriety. One well known example is the Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. While he was reputedly a very wise and insightful teacher (at least initially), he became an alcoholic who abused and humiliated his followers and sexual exploited his female disciples. The American teacher Adi Da (also known as Da Free John, amongst other names) clearly had some experience of the wakeful state, as shown by a number of extremely insightful books. However, early signs of instability and narcissism intensified into full blown megalomania, until he regularly proclaimed that he was the sole saviour of the human race, and that the only possible way to become awakened was to become his follower. He also ritually humiliated and sexually abused his followers. As Andrew Cohen – a spiritual teacher himself – wrote, “How could a spiritual genius and profoundly Awakened man like Da Free John, who makes such a mockery of his own genius through his painfully obvious megalomaniacal rantings, leave so many lost and confused?”

The irony here is that in recent years Cohen himself has suffered many accusations of impropriety and misconduct from his followers too, including allegations of bullying and financial extortion. In 2013, as a result of these accusations, Cohen decided to step down from his role as a guru, after realising that ‘in spite of the depth of my awakening, my ego is still alive and well.’

Corruption and Projection

How is all this possible? In a good number of cases, it may be that self-appointed ‘spiritual teachers’ are simply self-deluded fools or charlatans. But I don’t think this is the whole story. At least to some extent, the failings of spiritual teachers are the result of the role itself. Some spiritual teachers may have been narcissists all along, but others are turned into narcissists. Such teachers may well be genuinely awakened to begin with but are slowly corrupted by their power and authority, to the point that their wakefulness dissipates, and they become lost in self-indulgence and delusion. Their egos become inflated by the projections of their followers, who treat them as perfect beings even when they behave unethically. Any cruel or exploitative behaviour is explained away as some kind of ‘test’ or ‘divine play’, and the teachers lose their moral compass. The egos they were supposed to have ‘dropped’ a long time ago become inflated to monstrous proportions.

The problem is that a shift into a higher-functioning, more expansive state of being (i.e. wakefulness) doesn’t necessarily ‘wipe the slate clean.’ There may be some old, lingering negative tendencies which become amplified by the role of spiritual teacher. There may be a tendency to narcissism or to authoritarianism – even just slight a tendency – which was never clearly visible before. But these tendencies are still extant, and what might originally have been a tiny germ of a negative trait becomes a grossly obvious personality defect. What might originally have been an insignificantly small tendency towards self-indulgence explodes into excess and degeneracy on a rock star scale.

There is a particular danger of this happening if a person makes a conscious decision to become a teacher soon after their initial awakening, before there has been time for negative traits to fade away. It’s also dangerous when spiritual teachers from the East move to the West – even more so, if they come from an eastern monastic tradition. They may well be unused to permissive Western attitudes to sex, and find themselves unable to control their sexual impulses. The overt hedonism and materialism of Western culture may have a similar negative effect. This helps to explain the sexual promiscuity of teachers such Chogyam Rinpoche, Swami Muktananda and Osho.

One of the problems here is that the role of spiritual teacher is so unregulated. There are no guidelines to follow, no regulations to ensure that teachers behave responsibility, or to protect vulnerable people. (This is part of the reason why I have written my new book The Leap: The Psychology of Spiritual Awakening.)There isn’t even any reliable means of distinguishing fraudulent or deluded teachers from genuine ones. We only have our own intuition and discernment to rely on – which unfortunately may not always protect us from exploitation.

Steve Taylor PhD is senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. His new book The Leap (from which this article is an edited extract) is published by New World Library (Eckhart Tolle Editions).