I was hanging out with some girlfriends sipping my fizzy berry drink (doing my seasonal cleansing, baby!) and chatting about exposés coming out lately around less-than-ethical coaches that use age-old techniques of manipulating people into forking over life savings or becoming cult-like followers of their programs.
One of my amigas asked, “But how are people supposed to tell the difference?”
I know the answer to this because I almost joined a cult when I was 19. It was disguised as a meditation class. What follows is a long post, but I think it covers some important points.
At 19 years old, I was in the depths of a spiritual crisis and had a sense that meditation could help me. Every class I found charged money – a lot of money – and I was at a loss since I was a broke college student. Then I saw a flyer for a free meditation class on campus. Sahweet!
I showed up and another woman I knew was there. I was glad to see a familiar face. The class was led by a woman in her 30s who seemed nice enough. In then end when she asked for feedback, I commented that I was a little distracted by the weird music that played in the background.
Yes, I called it weird. Because it was.
“Oh, that’s composed by Rama. You’ll get used to it. It’s really transformational.”
A white guy named Rama who composed New Age music. Hmmmm.
Then, after the class, the teacher pulled me and my friend aside – even though we were about to walk out, and many others had approached her afterwards to get more info. “I’d like to invite you two to a live event to meet Rama. It’s in LA, and we’d be happy to pay all of your expenses.”
She made some comments about how we seemed “so into it” and how we’d love the community. I was hesitant. But I also loved free shit.
I agreed for her to come by my place later in the week to talk more about it. The other woman, on the other hand, agreed instantly.
As we both walked home after the class, I asked my acquaintance if she thought it was weird that only the two of us got pulled aside when we were the ones just walking out. And how we happened to be the only 2 females there, with the rest being guys with greasy hair and the like – who were also way more “into it.”
She thought nothing of it.
About a week later the meditation teacher came by my place on campus, accompanied by a mousy looking woman carrying binders.
She told the mousy woman to place the binder on my kitchen table and the other woman did as she was told. One binder fell to the floor and the teacher barked at her, “Pick that up! We have to be careful with those!” The mousy woman scrambled anxiously.
The woman then went on and on about Rama and his programs and how he was soooooo amazing, and how there were so many other women like me and my friend in their community.
Throughout all this she kept shouting sharp comments at the other woman, who never spoke the entire time.
It all felt really off. I said I’d think about it (remember, this is before I knew any of my life coaching Jedi tricks about boundaries😉
She reminded me it would cost me nothing – they’d pay for me to fly from Santa Cruz to LA, and put me up with free lodging etc.
I said again that I’d think about it and she asked me, “How long do you need?” I don’t fucking know, I thought. Just get out of my place.
“Three days,” I finally said.
And they left, the mousy woman opened the door for the “teacher” and scrambled to catch up with her.
I found it most disturbing that she treated the other woman like crap. I don’t care how far along you still need to go on your meditation path. No need to treat people like shit.
After they left, one of my roommates came home and I told her about it. She agreed it was weird and called her mom, who was an investigative journalist in LA. (Badass!)
Her mom called back within minutes and said how Rama was a well-known scammer who recruited young women – particularly cute brunettes – and eventually got them to give over their life savings and donate them to his cause. If they didn’t have money, they could work for him for free (he had some kind of business on the side). He also hooked up with his students.
My roommate’s mom called the organization and asked that they not come onto campus and that she knew Rama was a known cult leader. The “teacher” said they were invited so they had permission to be on campus (which was true), and after a few more minutes of prodding, she admitted that they were indeed a business (but denied they were a cult) and that Rama saw his participants as “investors” in his business.
So Rama had sex with his followers, took their money and free labor, and grew rich off of it.
Wow. Lesson learned. I told the woman who was going to go to the event what had transpired. What happened next is a whole other blog post.
Suffice it to say, Rama and his entourage were not bona fide teachers of meditation or worthy of teacher status.
Shortly after this series of events, I found an Australian Buddhist-lesbian-martial-arts-loving-nun in Boulder Creek, California. She taught me meditation for free. She taught me how desiring chocolate cake and sex was perfectly OK, but that attachment to them and letting such desires run my life were what created suffering.
She taught me how I could feel desire AND be free by not attaching to it. She was fucking amazing, and to this day she teaches, including to death row prisoners in San Quentin prison. She’s one of my mentors, Robina Courtin. She’s the real deal.
She convinced me to go to Nepal before I graduated from college, even when I tried to come up with myriad excuses why the timing was bad. She told me over and over how she was imperfect. And even though she made no money, every now and then she would give me gifts like a candle, or a mala, or a book.
It was in Nepal in the Fall of 1994 that I really learned about choosing a mentor.
I had almost become a Buddhist nun after a month-long meditation retreat, but bypassed shaving my head and becoming celibate after a few weeks trekking alone and meditating in the Himalayas. Having that adventure helped make it clear to me that I was supposed to try to attain enlightenment while having sex and the challenges of intimate relationships 😉
I asked a respected Tibetan Lama how to best select my next teacher to study with.
“Check your teacher” he said.
How the hell was I supposed to do that?
He said I should spy on them (really!), study them – see how they act when they don’t think anyone is looking. He told me that it was then that people’s true character came out. He also said that no matter what, they should be acting with compassion and kindness. (Unlike the barking meditation teacher from the cult.)
He told me that traditionally, people would follow around a prospective teacher and watch how they treated others, spying on them behind bushes and eavesdropping through shut doors. They would see how they practiced and how they lived their lives. They would do this for quite a long period of time, because choosing a teacher was very, very important and it was paramount to trust your teacher deeply.
If you didn’t choose an ethical and practiced teacher, you endangered your spiritual path, and even your life.
Holy shizzle – that’s serious.
I didn’t think of it that way at first, but the make made a lot of sense the more he spoke to me about this.
To truly grow in life, you need to deeply trust your guides – whether they are your parents, your best friend you call in the middle of the night, your coach, or your spiritual mentor.
You need to trust. Not in the blind way that cult-leaders and charismatic faux-teachers would like you to – but in a deep way that allows you to take the big risks when you are feeling like shying away from the edge.
After all, that is where true growth happens – when you are living on the edge of your comfort zone. And if you are with a good teacher, you’ll go there. And when you trust your teacher, you’ll stretch beyond your comfort zone. And they’ve got your back.
HOW TO “CHECK YOUR TEACHER”
Use these guidelines for evaluating whether anyone is worth your salt (or hard-earned cash) before committing to working with them intensively. These are 6 points to help you learn how choose a life coach. Frankly, I think you should use these guidelines in choosing your friends and partners as well!
1) Are their values in alignment with yours? When I was looking for a coach, I found a lot of them telling me they created lives of “freedom” – but none of them traveled for 3-4 months a year like I did. Instead, they bragged about being done with work by 5pm, having one spa day to themselves a week, and escaping to a ski cabin each winter. They went on and on about having lots and lots of money. They also bragged how they hardly ever had to coach – that almost everything was automated or delegated out to their other “head” coaches, and how they only had to show up to coach once in awhile.
Those things are nice, and indeed those things were freedom for many people. But I wanted 3-4 months of true vacation. I really really like spa days, but I prefer them in places that required me to get a visa. I wanted money too – but enough for me to do exactly what I wanted (not buckets and buckets of it but with no time to do anything with it). Plus, I wanted to coach people. Not rake it in without having to ever connect with the people paying me good money to help change their lives.
It wasn’t all about the numbers for me – it was about the experiences.
My definition of freedom was not theirs.
What is your definition of freedom (or any of your other values)? Is your coach aligned with that?
2) Do they walk their talk? I go to a lot of conferences and gatherings where there are many high-profile coaches. I can’t tell you how disappointed I’ve been when I meet some of them in person. It was heartbreaking for me to see that someone I admired after reading their blogs or watching their videos actually acted like an asshole.
It felt like high school again: women boasting about freedom and sisterhood, then not giving the time of day to someone they didn’t think was an “influencer” when they were approached and tried to start a conversation. They would brush them aside.
And the ironic thing? Their “followers” would hang on to them tighter, feeling like they were the “special ones.”
The sad part was they were only treated like that because they paid.
Once they were out of that person’s Mastermind, their emails stopped getting answered or the other members stopped writing them or caring about what they were up to.
Just like the monk told me when I was 19 – your teacher should act with compassion and kindness. Even if you don’t pay them.
3) Do you feel uplifted when you are with them? Not from a star-struck perspective or because of who they know or the name-dropping of who they hang with. Rather, when you are with them, do you feel seen, heard, and understood? Do you feel inspired to take action in your own life? Do you feel hopeful about your future and have actionable plans to make it happen? Do you feel better about yourself and are more proud of how you show up in the world when inspired by them?
4) Do they offer real value? I’m all about the “pricelessness” of true freedom and happiness. But you should definitely not be convinced by a coach to tap into your 401k because someone’s Mastermind would “totally be worth it.”
Yes, I feel this way even if you freely choose to do so.
In my opinion, using the excuse that people freely do so is just bullshit. And many people blow off their clients going into serious debt because they claim that client had a choice.
Fair enough. They did. But coaches also have a choice in how they select their clients, and the ethical coaches I know have a stringent application process before allowing people into their higher-level programs. They only allow people in who show high promise of benefitting from the teachings and indeed making the program “worth it,” and not just taking the money of anyone who wants to join.
Any responsible coach would not ask you to tap into your life savings. There are way more affordable ways to learn some of these skills before you can afford a high-level Mastermind.
It’s one reason why I offer my crazy-affordable Urban Wellness Club. It’s a way to receive coaching and learn life, wellness, and mindset skills even when you can’t afford my year-long mastermind or 1:1 coaching yet.
5) Eventually, will you learn what it takes to do it yourself? If you’re with a smarmy teacher, they’ll encourage you to always need them and to give up things important to you to be with them (like your 401k). They’ll teach you, but then also have a tricky way of making you feel small so that you don’t quite feel worthy unless you are one of their inner circle. And you won’t learn anything that would allow you to not “need” them anymore.
This reminds me of the classic tale in Chinese medicine about the old wise medicine man who had met a young and talented new practitioner. The young new guy said, “What have you cured? I have cured so many diseases like the horrific and persistent x, y, and z diseases. What have you treated?”
“Well,” said the elder practitioner, “I admit I have not cured any of those fancy diseases you speak of. You see, my patients don’t get sick.”
A good medical practitioner helps you to not get sick so that they don’t make their living off of curing disease after disease in their patients. Similarly, I believe a coach helps you learn the skills to be able to implement on your own and over time.
Let me be clear about something here: personally, I always have a coach. I like having a coach. I work well with coaches and it’s a huge reason why I am as successful as I am. However, I do not need a coach. I have learned how to discover what I need to do to succeed, and I choose to have coaches to help make it easier. But I do not need them to move forward because I have learned what it takes to do it myself.
Similarly, you can choose to work with a coach over time year after year – but know that you should also be growing over time, learning new skills and seeing real change.
6) Who are their teachers? Before every traditional Buddhist teaching I have attended, there is a large portion of time – an uncomfortable portion of time, if I have to say so myself – where you are fidgeting for the “real teaching” to start…but it is stalled while the monk or nun teaching goes on and on about where the teaching came from, ultimately ending back at the Buddha himself.
You see, in traditions that have been around for thousands of years, they know that where the teaching came from is just as important as the teaching itself.
You don’t want to invest precious time and energy (and these days, money) into following a spiritual teaching that someone pulled out of their ass. Same goes for coaching. It’s one reason I am not totally opposed to coaches being required to be Certified (FYI most out there aren’t).
I do believe you can be a really talented coach and not be certified. I also believe it’s a lot harder to be a crappy coach if you are certified than if you’re not.
You can still be crappy if you’re certified, just like you can be a crappy doctor even if somehow you were smart enough to get into and finish medical school. However, you have better odds and receiving medical care from someone with an MD or other health licensure than from someone without one. And you have a better chance at true quality coaching from someone certified through a rigorous program.
Who did your coach study with? Who did they learn from? We often practice how we were trained, so make sure your coach got into the trenches with some real masters so they can share their precious nuggets of wisdom with you!
7) Do you relate to their story? A coach who has walked your path – or at least the path you want to walk – will be a better coach for you than one who hasn’t. Simple as that.
If you want to learn to create a life of unconventional travel and adventure, you won’t work as well with a coach who perhaps travels, but chooses to “adventure” only in the fancy hotels and spas in the countries that they visit.
If you’re trying to lose weight after a baby, you won’t work as well with a weight loss coach who has never struggled with weight to begin with.
If you want to work on your fear of being alone and can’t stand the idea of being single, you won’t work as well with a coach that has always been in a super cozy relationship than with a coach who has had a fear of becoming a spinster after a divorce at 37 years old.
So there you have it – 7 points that I think would serve you well to consider before choosing to work intensively with a coach. Or choose a friend. Or let a guy move into your house.
You are worth every bit of discrimination that you can muster when choosing who to let into your life.
Do you think we might be a good match? Schedule a free strategy session with me here, and let’s find out!
If you want to join a tribe of people that will help you navigate this wild and precious life, come check out Freedom School – for rebels like you. It’s not just personal growth for rebels. It’s Jedi training for the new world.