As I walked outside during the intermission of a lecture given by a well-known spiritual teacher one evening, I noticed protesters carrying signs: "It's wrong to charge for spiritual teaching!" The message struck a chord with me, as I'm sure it does for many spiritual seekers. We tend to think of money as tainted and evil, while spiritual knowledge is pure and sacred. Mixing the two is taboo.
As a psychiatrist who integrates meditation teaching with psychiatric treatment, I've seen firsthand how the issue of money can be a sensitive one for both student and instructor. Many teachers in the healing and spiritual professions struggle with the question of whether to simply accept donations or charge a formal fee. I've grappled with both approaches. The good news, I've discovered, is that the options are not black-and-white. By taking time to explore the subtleties of different payment options, a teacher can ultimately arrive at a solution that serves everyone's best interests.
Economics & Emotions
Much of the unease over mixing money and spirit comes from the fact that it flies in the face of history. Many spiritual traditions insist that teaching be given to the student free of charge. Or, in some cases, the student could offer a donation. This practice, referred to as dana
in Buddhism, served to develop generosity in both student and teacher, as the former contributed voluntarily to the livelihood of the latter.
The idea of dana resonates most with my own inclination. I feel uncomfortable insisting that people pay me; I enjoy giving my time and energy to those who will use what I teach to improve their lives. However, I also struggle with running a practice and supporting a family. While I wish I were independently wealthy and could spend my time teaching and meditating without needing to derive any revenue from these activities, I have dependents, who rely on my income for food, shelter, and medical care.
So for me, the economic issue of charging for spiritual teaching comes down to necessity: I want to make the teaching accessible, and I need to be reimbursed for my time.
But that doesn't mean I can't adjust the fee.
I once had a patient who was learning meditation as a part of her psychiatric treatment. She was disabled and had no source of income other than a disability check. In early December, she told me that despite her best efforts and those of my billing person, her insurance company refused to pay for the last 10 sessions of treatment. The course of action was clear. "Merry Christmas," I said, and fed her bill to the shredder.
I also have the right to insist on the full price if need be. Another person wanted a low fee because he had a high Mercedes payment. Obviously his priorities--and not my fee--needed to be adjusted. So while I charge a fee, I am ready to alter that fee according to the patient's needs.
But beyond economics, the question of whether to charge a fee is steeped in emotional issues as well. As a spiritual teacher, I find that students project all sorts of ideas and attitudes onto me. I constantly have to be on guard against ego-inflation and role-absorption, and I've found that the way I receive reimbursement affects my susceptibility to these dangers.
The problem of ego-inflation, or excessive self-importance, seems to rear its ugly head no matter what I do. If I only accept donations, then I cannot feel important for commanding a high fee. Placing the teaching ahead of my own needs helps me cultivate humility.
However, accepting donations also sets me apart from other members of society who bill for their time. The message here could be that spiritual teaching is really too important and too holy to charge for. This stance engenders false pride. Each of us has gifts, and my work is no more important or holy than that of farmers and garbage collectors who provide food and a clean environment.