Philip Goldberg has been studying the world’s spiritual traditions for more than 50 years as a practitioner, teacher, and author. An ordained Interfaith Minister, spiritual counselor, and public speaker, he has presented at major venues throughout the U.S. and has been featured in numerous publications. He has authored or co-authored more than 25 books, including Get Out of Your Own Way; The Intuitive Edge; Roadsigns on the Spiritual Path; American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West; the seminal biography The Life of Yogananda: The Story of the Yogi Who Became the First Modern Guru; and his most recent, Spiritual Practice for Crazy Times: Powerful Tools to Cultivate Clarity, Calm and Courage. Phil has taught courses on various online platforms, hosts the Spirit Matters podcast, and serves on the board of the Association for Spiritual Integrity.

Addressing the Dark Side of Spiritual Teachings: Lessons from
Guru Scandals 

In his research on “alternative spiritualities,” Goldberg discovered a disturbing pattern of power abuse and corruption among spiritual leaders. There are, unfortunately, many situations where spiritual teachers have abused their students. Clients have been deceived by those who lie about their backgrounds and have ulterior motives driven by a desire for power, money, or sex. Abuses of power and undue influence can lead to sex and labor trafficking, rape, and cult involvement.  

To shed light on this issue, he authored a publication titled “The Guru Scandals: Lessons from the Recent History of Power Abuse” for Harvard Divinity School (see link in Resources, below). This work delves into student-teacher relationships, accountability among independent teachers, empowering spiritual seekers, redefining power dynamics, and responding to ethical breaches. By examining these lessons, Goldberg aims to foster a greater understanding of the potential pitfalls within spiritual circles and promote healthier practices. 

Philip wants to create more awareness around the importance of a spiritual journey rooted in informed consent and common sense so that abuses like this do not occur. He has become part of an organization to create criteria for evaluating spiritual teachers. Philip recently wrote  Spiritual Practice for Crazy Times: Powerful Tools to Cultivate Clarity, Calm, and Courage.  This, partnered with his research and work for the Association for Spiritual Integrity to help evaluate spiritual teachers, means that he is essential to help educate students on their spiritual journey. His work is equally important for cult survivors who may wish to practice their spirituality in a healthy and informed way.  

The Association for Spiritual Integrity: Promoting Ethical Behavior in Spiritual Teachings 

Recognizing the prevalence of scandals and confusion surrounding spiritual teachers, the founders of the Association for Spiritual Integrity (ASI) sought to establish standards of practice and honor codes for ethical behavior within the spiritual community. Goldberg’s extensive knowledge and dedication to promoting informed consent and common sense align perfectly with ASI’s mission. As a board member, Goldberg actively contributes to the organization’s efforts to educate individuals on the moral behavior and ethics expected of spiritual teachers and leaders. ASI does not aim to police or regulate; instead, it focuses on creating accountability and providing support to professionals in the spiritual field, enabling them to serve their communities better. 

The Importance of Ethical Standards: ASI’s Code of Ethics 

Recognizing the potential dangers posed by independent spiritual teachers lacking organizational oversight, ASI developed a comprehensive code of ethics for individuals and organizations. By pledging to abide by these ethical standards, spiritual teachers can demonstrate their commitment to integrity and accountability. ASI provides a mechanism for addressing complaints or issues through mediation and conversation between the parties involved. Additionally, teachers benefit from peer support and networking opportunities, fostering a community of continuous learning and growth. ASI’s initiatives have gained recognition through participation in events such as the Harvard Divinity School Conference and the Parliament of World Religions 

Philip Goldberg’s Journey with Transcendental Meditation 

During the countercultural movement of the 1960s, Goldberg was drawn to Eastern teachings due to their empirical nature and emphasis on personal experience and reasoning. His interest led him to explore transcendental meditation, a widespread practice at the time. Developed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, transcendental meditation promotes self-development and higher states of consciousness. It is reportedly one of the most widely practiced and studied meditation techniques. 

He felt that his life had become less chaotic, and he worked for an organization as a teacher of TM. He had some skepticism and felt that, as a result, he was not as spiritual as others or adhered to the level of devotion and worship that they did. When the more controversial ideas of practices of ‘yogic flying’ of floating across rooms and becoming invisible were announced in the 70s, he did not like the way they were presented. He saw this as a sign to pull away from the movement. Transcendental Meditation has drawn controversy, especially since the public announcement of these ‘advanced stages.’ In 1987, the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) criticized Transcendental Meditation as ‘not simply a method of relaxation through meditation, but a cult that ultimately seeks to strip individuals of their ability to think and choose freely.’ 

Goldberg found when he started to become skeptical of these advanced stages in Transcendental Meditation that he felt like he had personal failings. Like other groups that can exercise undue influence,  victims or those who complain are seen as the problem and made to feel shame. The leader and the group are without fault and perfect. Suppose you can’t see that, then the issue is with you. Members are made to feel guilt that they are not devoted or trying hard enough. 

‘Traumatic narcissism’ is where the cult leader claims to be the greatest or most enlightened and superior to others. Dan Shaw coined this term and found in his research that often, the root cause of this narcissism was, ‘an insecure attachment to parental figures along with a lack of healthy development of “self.” The false or unhealthy self compensates for a lack of control internally by wishing to overcontrol people and things outside of them.’ Traumatic narcissism can lead to the harm and abuse of followers, feeling that they can never do enough, even when they become wholly subservient.   

How to Stay Connected  Spiritually in Today’s World  

In today’s rapidly changing world, staying connected to spirituality can be challenging, especially with the prevalence of media influence and misinformation. For survivors of cultic groups, it is crucial to approach spirituality in an informed and safe manner. Goldberg offers valuable advice on maintaining a spiritual connection in these times. However, he emphasizes the importance of seeking dedicated teachers or mentors who have a solid foundation in ethical practices and a deep understanding of the spiritual traditions they teach. He encourages individuals to do their research, ask questions, and trust their intuition when choosing a spiritual teacher or community. 

Goldberg emphasizes the importance of discernment and critical thinking when engaging with spiritual teachings. He encourages individuals to question and challenge ideas that do not resonate with their inner truth or go against their values. This includes being aware of red flags such as claims of absolute authority, demands for blind obedience, or promises of quick fixes or enlightenment. 

It is, of course, essential, if you have left a traumatic, cultic group, to receive dedicated and centered therapy to unpack these issues. Support from others is also of critical importance. Philip Goldberg found that he left Transcendental Meditation at the same time and for the same reasons as many others, and they became a support network for one another. Having conversations with those who have had a similar experience to you and understanding its negative impact can help with healing.   

While Philip discussed issues with Transcendental Meditation, he mentioned that one should not always discount their positive experiences within a cult-like group. He felt it was essential to take away the positives from his meditation, and he still maintained his mantra. Meditation had changed his life for the better and supported his personal development. Many others in abusive groups can leave the group and separate themselves from something harmful but still recognize that they experienced positives from their experience, such as learning new skills and overcoming addictions. However, it can be tough to reconcile these positive experiences and memories with traumatic and abusive experiences within cults. Philip Goldberg’s new book acts as an excellent guide for those wishing to explore their spirituality in a safe and informed way.  


You can buy Philip’s new book, Spiritual Practice for Crazy Times, here.  

You can also listen to Philip’s podcast, Spirit Matters, here.  

Goldberg, Philip. 2023.“The Guru Scandals: Lessons from the Recent History of Power Abuse.” in Uses and Abuses of Power in Alternative Spiritualities. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.  


Philip Goldberg’s Website 

Association for Spiritual Integrity (ASI) Website   

Relevant blogs  

Meditation, Yes! But Please Be Careful and Do Your Homework Regarding Transcendental Meditation (TM) 

 Escaping Transcendental Meditation: Nurse Midwife Gina Catena Tells Her Story 

Traumatic Narcissism: From Muktananda and Gurumayi to Donald Trump  

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