The Paradox of Healthy Boundaries

The Paradox of Healthy Boundaries

Discussion date: Thu, May 26, 2011 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday evening, after our meditation, we will have a special guest presenter. Scott Edelstein comes to Washington as part of a book tour for his recent book: Sex and the Spiritual Teacher: Why It Happens, When It’s a Problem, and What We All Can Do. His topic this Thursday will be The Paradox of Healthy Boundaries.

Scott has been a practitioner of Zen for almost forty years. His book arose from his direct observation of the suffering caused by teacher sexual misconduct in American spiritual communities. His hope is that a deeper understanding of healthy boundaries will help both teachers and students. In the book’s introduction Scott writes:

This book is about spiritual teachers who have sex with their students, the suffering that such encounters often cause, and what all of us can do about it.

This is not a book of finger-pointing or whistle-blowing. Nor does it defend or apologize for spiritual teachers who lose their way. In fact, as we will see, the more we attack or defend wayward teachers, the more we encourage their waywardness.

Instead, this book is intended to create greater safety and spiritual intimacy between spiritual teachers and their students, and among members of spiritual communities.

According to Scott, spiritual teachers have a relationship with their students that is qualitatively different from other relationships. He calls it the Boundary Paradox:

Spiritual teachers often help their students break down, see through, or transcend boundaries—between opposing parts of themselves, between themselves and others, between themselves and the Absolute, and so on. Furthermore, as our teachers work with us, we let them deeply affect our hearts, guts, and heads—even our dreams.

Yet in our relationships with these teachers, we’re told and expected to “maintain healthy boundaries.” This paradox pervades our lives and lodges deep in our bellies. We need to be vulnerable if we are to open our hearts, yet we need to protect ourselves in order to stay sane, healthy, and safe. We need to take the risk of being hurt—yet we need to also block out people and forces that would harm us.

In our discussion we hope to broaden out from teacher misconduct to the larger issues of healthy and appropriate boundaries in spiritual communities and in all our relations.

You are invited to join us this Thursday evening for our meditation and our program.

You are also invited to join us for dinner with Scott beforehand. (We will be meeting at the Lebanese Taverna, 933 Ellsworth Drive, at 5:30. Please email us at if you are able to join us for dinner.)

Another excerpt from Scott’s book is below.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher


Spiritual Student-Teacher Relationships
by Scott Edelstein, from Sex and the Spiritual Teacher

. . . student-teacher relationships often closely resemble those of therapist and client, and are usually much more intimate than those of clergy and congregants. It’s not unusual for a spiritual teacher to probe, challenge, or ask questions that might sound rude or invasive coming from an ordinary spiritual leader.

Furthermore, in discussions, spiritual teachers and their students can get into some intensely intimate stuff—about trust, love, sex, family, money, hopes, fears, regrets, yearnings, beliefs, assumptions, ontology, epistemology, soteriology, and how to live a decent or meaningful life. But within each teacher-student relationship, the teacher must always put aside their own desires and agendas, and do whatever is in the student’s best interests. This inspires trust, which doesn’t—and shouldn’t—grow overnight. Usually it is a slow and protracted process. A wise teacher does not hurry things, but lets this trust grow naturally, and rewards it at each step with insight, compassion, and service.

As students, when we sense that our teachers are focused on our best interests, we can allow our trust in them grow. But if we sense that a teacher is not supporting our spiritual well-being, we can and should create some emotional distance.


in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, May 26, 2011


This week
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Sun, April 14 Mon, April 15

Silver Spring Morning Meditation

Friends in Different Places

Tue, April 16

Takoma Park Morning Meditation

Tuesday Evening Gaithersburg Group

Wed, April 17

Silver Spring Morning Meditation

Spanish-Speaking Online Practice

Still Water Kent Island

Thu, April 18

Takoma Park Morning Meditation

Fri, April 19

Silver Spring Morning Meditation

Sat, April 20