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.
But while I ultimately arrived at a sense of emotional balance by setting a fee most people can afford, that's only half of the equation. The other side are the students. How do they feel about being asked to pay for spiritual teachings? And how do they feel when they cannot afford to?
Given my aversion to charging for my services, I've been surprised to find that most people feel more comfortable when I set a fee. I've definitely noticed more uneasiness about money when I have left the question completely open. New students are especially susceptible. Already dealing with many new ideas and unsure of exactly what is expected of them, they feel that having to come up with a donation amount introduces another uncertainty into an already uncertain situation.
Unfortunately, some students who are offered a low fee, or who believe they are giving less than others, feel guilty about it. They will rarely speak about their guilty feelings, but these feelings can become an impediment to spiritual growth. If I sense that students are feeling this way, then I initiate a conversation about the issue. I need to make sure they understand that I am comfortable with the amount being paid. It's also extremely important that I not suggest that the lower fee somehow reflects a reward for good progress. If I imply this, they will feel required to make progress--yet another source of guilt if they don't succeed in doing so. I have to accept their low fee with no contingencies, not even how well they are using the teaching.
Some students will suggest they be allowed to offer services in lieu of monetary payment. While this seems reasonable in theory, it brings up a host of practical issues that need careful consideration. First of all, how much service is sufficient? I've seen many cases where in the absence of guidelines, the student gets exploited.
And what kind of services will be accepted? Services of a more personal nature, such as massage, can become inappropriate. Then there is the pragmatic issue of what to do if the student does not perform the job to the teacher's satisfaction.
Teachers faced with the student who insists on donating services instead of payment might consider having the person donate his or her time to a nonprofit organization. This eliminates the possibility of the services becoming inappropriate or exploitive.
A second possibility is to set a monetary value to the student's work according to his or her industry standards. I would recommend "paying" the student at a higher rate than the going market rate to reduce the temptation of using students as a source of cheap labor. Finally, I would not allow students to perform any personal services for me, such as working around my house, cooking my meals, or providing childcare. All donated work would have to be a clear business activity. This would protect the ethical boundaries for both of us.
The two systems of accepting donations and charging a fee each have strengths and weaknesses. There is no best way. Although accepting compensation for spiritual teaching can complicate the relationship with the student, by rigorously applying awareness and balance, a teacher can arrive at a solution that not only satisfies everyone's needs but creates space for the benefits of the teaching to unfold.