There was a discussion on social media recently about yet another “spiritual” teacher being quietly called in for their less-than-congruent adherence to their own teachings from which they have profited greatly. It was a vague thread—non-specific and unnaming of the teacher—but potent and illuminating nonetheless. Even people who didn’t know exactly what the original poster (OP) was referencing in this vague post knew in some capacity who the OP was talking about and that something was off with this teacher. Many felt some alarm and ultimately relief in having this incongruence acknowledged. (I also imagine many did not.)

It doesn’t matter who the post was about because the reality with any of these toxic teachers is that the signs of their lack of integrity are always there but sometimes they are so well-tucked behind the charismatic trappings of their personalities that we miss them.[1]

But as intelligent and discerning creatures, shouldn’t we know better? Shouldn’t we expect more from ourselves—to not fall for something or someone that upon reflection seems too good to be true?

The simple answer is no. We are creatures wired for meaning and connection and to find a teacher who offers us hope when we feel hopeless or connection when we feel alone can feel like rain to our parched and thirsty souls. I know it because I have experienced it.

The truth is that it’s not our belief that is the problem. Nor is it our yearning. Heck, it’s not even the lack of integrity in the teacher. It is our ability to trust ourselves enough to know that we can doubt and question a teaching or, consequently, a teacher, without losing the depth of our faith or the magic of our wonder.

When we lack this self-trust—and in some ways also fear the authority of someone we consider our leader—the teacher goes unchecked and unquestioned. They will use increasingly alarming tactics to distract from being confronted or will attack and undermine their dissenters. This then drives conversations underground: No sane person would want to engage in war with someone who has everything to lose professionally and lots of resources to bring to the fight.

And thus we are left with another chink in our protective armor of faith. Our loneliness deepens and our feelings of disconnection grow. How do we trust again and manage to look forward with hope?

In her wonderful book, “Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience,” author Sharon Salzberg writes at length about the importance and healing quality of faith. But she also addresses at length a core teaching of the Buddha—that in order to verify our faith and have our beliefs come alive within us, we must commit to “skillful doubt” and a practice of deliberately questioning those beliefs.

She shares that faith “in contrast to belief, is not a definition of reality, not a received answer, but an active, open state that makes us willing to explore. While beliefs come to us from outside—from another person or a tradition or heritage—faith comes from within, from our alive participation in the process of discovery.”

And now we hit the crux of the matter: Personal Development or Spiritual Teachers who do not actively encourage questioning or verifying their teachings—for yourself—most likely have something to hide.

In Buddhism, there is a term for that heady, delight-filled, loving, enthusiastic experience of resonating with a teaching or teacher so fully: bright faith. Sharon says, “Bright faith goes beyond merely claiming that possibility for oneself to immersing oneself in it. With bright faith we feel exalted as we are lifted out of our normal sense of insignificance, thrilled as we no longer feel lost and alone.”

If you have experienced bright faith, this all will sound and feel familiar to you. It’s a feeling of pure potential in a field of infinite possibilities. It’s expansive and warm and freeing. It’s also incredibly validating: the world that felt too small and too limiting is now opened up to new and glorious opportunities. But, if we stay in this love-fueled haze for too long, it can also become dangerous. Because for Buddhists, bright faith is a beginning not the end. It is also not where we abandon all discriminating thought or common sense.

In fact we mustn’t give our heart too freely for too long, because, “when we place our faith entirely in others, rather than remembering the need for faith in our own understanding, we end up caught in the shadow side of surrender and devotion.” We risk becoming dependent and passive and will ignore our higher knowing and subvert our reasoned intelligence. Instead, we must consider bright faith as a prelude to a “more mature regard, in which love for the other is investigated and balanced by our own self-respect.”

This practice of discriminating examination—of weighing our own experiences of the truth against those of others—is called verifying faith.

“This is a crucial step of verifying or validating through our own experience what we previously have only heard of or seen outside ourselves. The Buddha likened this process of investigation to the method for analyzing gold. The gold is scorched with fire, then cut and rubbed to test its purity. Likewise, we test the attractive, shiny allure of bright faith by examination, to see if the teachings hold up in our lives. In this way we learn to trust our own experience of the truth rather than an abstract tradition or authority.”

We must trust our own experience of the truth.

My husband told me a joke once that has stuck with me for a long time and has been a source of much amusement over the years. A simple reference back to the joke’s punchline always stirs a giggle. Just recently I realized that as ridiculous as it is, there is a lot of truth in this joke, particularly when it comes to verifying one’s faith.

I’ll tell it here but it’s a bit crude, so be warned:

Four old women are out for a walk when they are stopped in their tracks by a giant pile of something on the sidewalk in front of them.

One of the old women asks, “What’s that?”

The second old woman struggles to bend down to take a good long look. “Looks like dog poop.”

The third old woman, the youngest of the crew, squats down as best she can and takes a good sniff. “Smells like dog poop.”

The fourth woman, the bravest of the bunch, walks over, takes a swipe and says “Tastes like dog poop…Better not step in it“

OK. OK. I heard the collective groan go up from the audience and the shudders run through y’all from here. But as crass and unpleasant as this joke may be, it is another important aspect of verifying our faith when it comes to these charismatic, too-good-to-be-true teachers: if, in the process of verification, something they do or say feels like shit, trust the validity of your own experience and do not step in it.

Regardless of how you go about verifying faith, it’s important that you remember not only the importance of doing so but also that it is an active, ongoing process, vital to our continued and ongoing growth. As Salzberg says,”Faith entails the understanding that we don’t know how things will unfold. Even so, faith allows us to claim the possibility that we ourselves might change in ways that will allow us to recognize and trust the helping hands stretched toward us…Faith is the animation of the heart that says, ‘I choose life, I align myself with the potential inherent in life, I give myself over to that potential.'”[2]

Faith is alive, vibrant, and ever-changing, just as we are.

[1] HoB community member, Bridgette, wrote a brilliantly incisive follow-up piece to that discussion based on her 15 years of experience in the personal development world. I highly suggest you read it.

[2] Book referenced in this article: Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience by Sharon Salzberg {This is an affiliate link through, which supports local bookstores}