I have no issue with spending money on a spiritual practice. On the contrary, for years I’ve had a monthly “Joy” budget to purchase books, lectures, and classes. And I expect other people to spend money on my spiritual teaching/speaking/writing/whatever.
But it is important to remember that the core elements of a spiritual practice cannot be purchased. They are priceless and personal. That being said, there are all sorts of tools, trainings, teachers and venues that can be helpful and definitely have value.
Capitalism is a communication system. Every dollar spent is a vote saying, “More of this, please.” So spending money on spiritual tools and teachers is a great thing. And it is reasonable for a spiritual expert to charge for their time and skills just like an expert craftsman or lawyer would.
But the commodifying of a spiritual path is a delicate thing.
Due to the vulnerable and trusting nature of a teacher/student relationship, the commercial aspect needs to be scrutinized to ensure there is no exploitation. If a student trusts a teacher to give advice and guidance, is it ethical for the teacher to suggest products and services that the teacher makes money from?
(I’ll use the terms “teacher” and “student.” But it could be “devotee” and “guru,” “client” and “coach,” “seeker” and “guide,” “budding entrepreneur” and “mastermind leader,” etc.)
Consumer Reports (The magazine) knows that keeping a distinct line between advice and commerce is critical for them to maintain integrity. Unfortunately, this line is not as clean in many teacher/student relationships. Is it ethical for a teacher to recommend a training when that teacher gets a commission for every sale? I think so, if it is disclosed that the teacher is an affiliate. I have no doubt that Marie Forleos’s B School is a valuable training. And I know several happy graduates. But when I see so many respected leaders encouraging their fans and students to sign up for the $2000 program, I wonder why they don’t disclose that they are affiliates? If you make $1000 by me signing up from your link, how can that NOT affect your review or endorsement? At the very least, disclose you are getting a commission. I would think that a fan/follower would *want* to support a teacher.
And to their credit, many leaders make a point to disclose their affiliate relationships. In a recent newsletter from Tim Ferris, he recommended 10 products. At the end of every product review it had a link to the product with his affiliate link attached, and then next to it a “non-affiliate link.” The reader could choose if they wanted to support Tim when they purchased and make their own judgement if Tim was being influenced by his desire to sell. (And in being transparent, he earned my trust.)
A different example is Dave Asprey, the Bulletproof Exec. I love Bulletproof Coffee and find value in tons of Dave’s articles. But he is an expert who recommends products that he also sells. Maybe they all work as well as he says, but it is difficult to ignore the inherent motivation. It is like a drug dealer saying, “This stuff is pure, man.”
The influence of financial benefit is pretty obvious. The book “Freakonomics” is full of examples of how, even with our best intentions, people are influenced by incentives. Who hasn’t had the experience of a car mechanic or dentist recommending questionable (and expensive) work?
(I know there are tons of people who sell their own products because they truly believe in what they sell. But I also know there are tons of people who are caught in the BS of a Multi Level Marketing Program.)
It is essentially the same core issue with our political system right now. How can a politician not be influenced by the money they receive? Maybe they recommend a bridge be built in a specific district or support a change in legal wording that benefits certain types of corporations. Those may actually be good actions…but the system’s inherent incentives cause inevitable corruption.
And I fear that there is corruption in the world of coaches, entrepreneurs, and spiritual teachers, too.
Not everywhere. Not everyone. And not even with ill-intent. But without transparency, I find it difficult to trust.
And in the spirit of full disclosure, maybe it is my own issues about charging for my services that is fueling my mistrust. Hmmm…can anyone recommend a good coach? (Affiliate links accepted.)
For related writing that inspired this post, Jesse Gros has been posting brave essays about the coaching industry on his Facebook page