Should spiritual teachers be paid?

February 17, 2014   |   92 Comments  |   FavoriteLoadingAdd to favorites

1002994_10101072994577253_1135088942_n

This past Valentine’s Day, I launched a program called the “21-Day Open Heart Immersion: Live in Love.” I received this message (from a stranger) via email:

With all due respect, I think that the global consciousness is in a state of a major shift and it has a lot to do with people like you helping to spread the world and enlighten people on a large scale.

I admire the spiritual community in helping humanity evolve into who we truly were meant to be, however I find that many “teachers” are taking advantage of peoples hunger for growth and spiritual enlightenment to make more than just a living with the substantial cost involved in either participating in a spiritual retreat or otherwise simply taking an e course such as yours.  There are many people who simply cannot afford the $300 plus that it costs to take your course for example and so it seems that spiritual enlightenment is left mostly for those who have the means to afford it and leaves a substantial amount of humans behind which seems very contradictory to what most spiritual teachers are preaching about how we are all one and we need to open our hearts to love etc….. I often find myself seeking more and more information and find the cost of seminar or a course to be out of reach monetarily to many many people which defeats the very purpose these teachers are out to accomplish.  I understand that there are costs involved in setting up and teachers need to be compensated for their time but on the other hand, sharing this information is almost a responsibility given from the divine to spread to humanity to make this world a better place and the excessive cost being charged seems contradictory to any and all spiritual principles.

I was just wondering what your take on this is.

Thank you, Blank

How would you have responded?

My initial response was to become enraged in a deeply un-spiritual manner. The following went through my mind: Why does she pretend to flatter me and then accuse me of being greedy and disingenuous? What is this “spiritual community?” Does this person know that I offer free meditation instruction to nearly 12000 people via video twice a week—and have been doing so for three years? When did I ever preach that “we are all one?” Why is she passing judgment on me? She has no idea who I am or what my life is like.

Anyone who blogs and teaches knows that this kind of judgment-bomb can land in your inbox at any time and we have several choices about how to respond:

1. Delete
2. Respond politely with appreciation for her comment but offer no real response
3. School (as in “She tried to school me. I tried to school her back”).

A sensible person would have chosen #1. A kind person would chosen #2. I chose #3.

Hello, Blank.

I’m not sure if you are actually interested in my take on these points or if you want me to hear your ideas of what my responsibilities should be and the suggestion that perhaps I am taking advantage of others.

If the former, I need to earn an income and it is up to me how I choose to do so. If the latter, duly noted.

In either case, I wish you the best in finding the information you seek.

Thank you, Susan

Not exactly scathing, but not softly “spiritual” either, whatever that is.

Herein lies the dilemma. How does a “spiritual” person conduct herself in a world where dharma and commerce intermingle? Where anyone who has a judgment of you can share that judgment at a moment of his or her choosing? And anyway, aren’t spiritual people supposed to be peaceful zombies who are inured to anger and hurt feelings? If they aren’t, shouldn’t they at least pretend to be?

Blank-ess brought up a question that has been contested for millennia. Those of us who teach and write on spiritual matters will encounter it at some point in our lives: Should this be free? If so, how will I live? If not, what do I charge and how do I relate to money altogether?

Again, there are choices. Many choices. With great difficulty, I’ve narrowed it down to six.

1. I am a child of the universe and trust that I will be taken care of if I offer to support sentient beings.

2. What I have to offer is of inestimable value and I deserve to be paid handsomely because I know how life-changing it is. (And it is.) Plus, isn’t making money a sign of success and shouldn’t spiritual teachings be associated with power?

3. Hmmm. These teachings are very profound. Too profound, actually—no one will understand them. What harm is there in expressing them in a way that people can access easily (i.e. minus the difficult bits)? If I fit my message into the current conversation, I can probably make my mark as well as some money.

4. Actually, the teachings are simply too deep and sophisticated for most people to grasp and I’m not even going to try to offer them widely. I refuse to dumb anything down. I reserve my offerings for the intelligentsia and if they pay me, fine. If not, I’ll stick to my principles and figure something out.

5. What do I know about anything? Not very much, truth be told. I better charge as little as possible so no one can accuse me of being superior or even knowledgeable.

6. I have no earthly idea how to manage all of this, but I better figure it out because this (writing and teaching) is my calling. I have a mortgage and a need for health insurance. Plus, someday I will be truly old (hopefully) and I don’t want to have to live outside.

Catch my drift? It is complicated.

There are definitely those who think that so-called spiritual teachers should be saintly and poor. There are those who think that the more powerful and wealthy you are, the closer you are to divinity. Who knows, maybe one of those is true. All I can do with this issue is what I try to do with every issue I encounter: bring it to the path by not attaching to a fixed answer.

I could feel my conflicts and discomfort about money with gentleness and precision—but not as a basis for action.

Ride the waves of self-preservation-related fears, shame at not having enough, and contemplate my supposition that wealth will make me safe.

Examine over and over how this fear and shame might make me do stupid things that are harmful to self and other and avoid said stupidity.

Most important, see how both my confusion and my wisdom can be offered to benefit sentient beings. Watch it all cycle and cycle and in each and every case, let go and keep letting go. Commit again and again to the middle way.

categorized in:

92 Comments

  • Posted by:  Jill Whalen

    Susan, the bottom line, IMO, is what you said: “Does this person know I offer free meditation instruction to nearly 12000 people via video twice a week—and have been doing so for three years?”

    There’s plenty of free spiritual teachings for those like “blank-ess” from you and others for those who can afford or don’t want to pay for additional, perhaps more intense offerings. Therefore, you have nothing to feel guilty about.

    People like blank appear in all industries. I receive nearly the same exact email many times in my SEO business because I supposedly charged too much. But I felt no guilt or shame over it because I also provided everything anyone needed to know how to do it themselves for free.

    Most of the time,my feeling is that the type of people who write such emails are hoping you’ll feel sorry for them and offer the services for free 🙂

    • Posted by:  susan

      Thank you for your support and good cheer!

  • Posted by:  Jill Salahub

    According to this logic, if someone has a real need, the one who provides for it shouldn’t be compensated. This would mean doctors, mechanics, farmers, even teachers are all “taking advantage” of people if they ask to be paid for their service. I don’t buy it.

    P.S. nice shrine. 🙂

    • Posted by:  susan

      That’s your pic, right?! THANK YOU!! I love it so much.

  • Posted by:  Valerie

    Dear Susan,

    It feels to me as if you have struck a wonderful balance. You are generous in your offer of practice, teaching and community with no request for recompense. And you are also generous in your offer of practice, teaching and community with an opportunity for people to give something in return — a service to the world by supporting a good teacher.

    I grew up with musician parents who were often asked to play for free. It was so strange to me that people would have a blind spot for the needs of our family. And yet, I had the same blind spot when I first began to study meditation at a Buddhist temple-monastery. I was so used to being charged money for everything, that when I wasn’t asked I didn’t offer. Finally the teacher said to me that the monks relied on the community for their livelihood. It was an important learning experience for me… and always good to revisit.

    Thank you for so honestly sharing your thoughts.

    Love & Light,

    Valerie

    • Posted by:  susan

      And thank you for your always kind and always helpful support–

  • Posted by:  Tammy

    Dear Susan,

    This is a complicated topic and one that I also think about. Sometimes I wish to attend a talk by Pema Chodron or the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh, but when I look at the price tag, I think, “WOW. Apparently spiritual seeking is for the wealthy. That doesn’t seem right.” From that perspective, I understand the mystery emailer’s point.

    I also understand yours. It is a conundrum to “sell” spirituality because it’s expected to be a free or pay-what-you-can service while, on the other hand, you do need – and deserve – to make a living wage.

    I am also self-employed and I recently interviewed with a woman who was interested in hiring me. During the interview, she asked for and I told her my hourly rate. The following day she sent me an email saying that I didn’t have a bunch of credentials (that weren’t in her list of criteria when we interviewed) and that my rate was 3x too high. I sent her a polite little email wishing her the best.

    But then I began thinking. You know. THINKING. Do my credentials suck? Do I charge too much? But I cannot LIVE on the rate she wants to pay. SHE certainly charges a freakin’ lot for HER services. And so on.

    Thankfully, that didn’t last too long and I just decided to continue on my path to wherever it may lead. Apparently my life is not meant to intersect with hers at this time.

    Here’s what I know from life:
    I must think about and know my own guiding principles and consciously live my life accordingly. Based on that, my path is paved by intention. When my intention is based on my guiding principles, in my case a desire to do good and bring goodness into the world, I can be certain that my path is the correct one for me. That is not to say it is easy or that it will always stay the same or that everyone will like it.

    It is challenging to live by my guiding principles in the face of disapproval. It is uncomfortable to say the least, but that discomfort is good! I try to acknowledge it and let it be. It helps me to think about and review my principles and my intention. Fortunately, I have learned from experience that it does no one any good for me to abandon my spiritual principles. So, once I review my principles and intentions, I can continue on my path with confidence regardless of what others may think or try to put on me.

    That is not to say that I don’t have periods of extreme discomfort when I can’t stop thinking about someone or something that has upset me greatly. I sure do. (It can be quite the bitchfest sometimes.) BUT, I don’t alter my path or myself to please others or to find relief from that discomfort. I only alter when my spiritual principles guide me that way.

    (I really hope that all makes sense.)

    With love,
    Tammy

    • Posted by:  susan

      Tammy, there is so much wisdom in this comment. I can relate to it all. I really appreciate how you hold gently to your self-worth while weighing the world’s feedback (which is often uncomfortable and bitchifying, not to mention the result of others’ projections). Stay strong, sister! xo S

    • Posted by:  Carlene

      Excellent comment, Tammy. I’m saving it

      • Posted by:  Tammy

        Thank you, Carlene. I’m glad you find it helpful and appreciate you letting me know.

    • Posted by:  Jill Cruse

      Great comment Tammy. Intention is the key. If we set the intention for the right reason (whether it be a business model or as simple as your intention for the day) and do your best, nothing should make you waiver from that path. We are human, and still have ego work to do on occasion, hence the bitch-fest – LOL, but knowing that it is never really about you personally takes me out of that defensiveness. A life-long learning; one that I deal with on a daily basis. But YOU can choose to take the learning you need and discard the rest. Rock on! Thanks for this!

  • Posted by:  MIcki McMillan

    It’s complicated, yet not. There is plenty of free information about spiritual growth on the internet, including your website. All of us are entitled to earn a living, and be compensated for our art, services, and skills. Those who question this may be stuck in the paradigm of money is bad and spirituality is good. They are not connected. Money isn’t the end, but part of the means.
    I wonder about those who begrudge us of charging for what we do. If they spent that time looking within, might their lives be different?

    • Posted by:  susan

      Excellent question!

  • Posted by:  Jennifer Boykin

    It’s not spiritual to be unable to support yourself. It’s not spiritual to expect something for nothing. It’s not spiritual to expect others to take care of you. It’s not spiritual to guise your own fear and penurity as a “call for clarity” from a potential mentor. Entitlement is a soul-sickness in all its forms.

    Perfect health is spiritual — sober, spiritual, mental, emotional, creative, and financial health.

    This woman pisses me off, and — honestly — I think that’s spiritual, too.

    I love that you continue to ask the questions and sit with the discomfort.

    Jen

    • Posted by:  susan

      Check, check, check. I know we are both parsing such questions as humans and not as saints. (And any message that works “penurity” in gets my vote.) Love, S

  • Posted by:  Margarida

    I am responsible for a buddhist center in my hometown and so I heard everything about this subjet… and more; we cannot offer meditation classes to our landlord or pay the bills with yoga classes; if we invite a teacher, we must organise events so we have money to pay his or her travel, lodgement, teaching, etc. and teachers don’t breath prana and live under a tree; sometimes people complain for paying 20 euros for a meditation workshop and they pay 125 euros and more for a reiki initiation… and actually, when we give something for free, sometimes people won’t value it – I know, we have done it; sometimes I feel like we should remind people that on ancient times students had to walk thousands of kms under really bad conditions to hear a teaching or receive a blessing; there are so many stories about candidates being left at the door of a monastery to test their resolve; nowadays everything is so easy, so yes, sometimes we do need some barriers; I think you already give a lot Susan, but I saw your interview with the tea samovar guy, and I felt you were not confortable with the subjet, you were trying to justify at a certain point the fact that you need to ask a payment – I don’t think you have to justify it. If I really really want to do this retreat or take this course, I will find the money or the way to do it, if I don’t have it, perhaps life is teaching me something else. Perhaps I am beeing greedy for another spiritual fix. Learning to letting go comes in many ways.

    • Posted by:  susan

      Agreed.

  • Posted by:  Kati

    Susan, my guess is this woman is feeling the pain of having little disposable income. I understand her frustration in some ways because I too am unable to afford your class, though I would love to take it. However, her resentment of you for her own financial difficulties (if that’s the case) is not fair and doesn’t look at the whole picture. As you’ve pointed out, you not only have a right to make a living, but a need to. And you offer spiritual teachings in a free format for others to learn from, which is very generous. I can totally understand given that why her letter may have been frustrating. However, looking from her perspective, it can really stuck to not be able to afford those things in life which are highly desirable. Compassion to you both.

    • Posted by:  susan

      Yes, I see her point too, definitely. And I feel it myself about the things I want but can’t afford, so I can relate. xo S

  • Posted by:  Brian

    You generously make available free sessions for all to enjoy. You possess a skill that has value and you should, at some level, charge for it. I used to attend a weekly meditation in a church basement in Worcester offered by two individuals who work at Umass in their mindfulness center. As you leave the session, there is an offering basket that you may leave $$ in. Most leave $10.

    Your program has value and the 21 day program requires a significant investment of your skills and time and you should be paid for it. I can afford it but I am not ready to take it. When I attended the Umass 10 week stress reduction/meditation program I paid over $500 and the fee was scaled based on household income. Please don’t be shy about about charging for these special programs. This woman’s situation is unfortunate and warrants compassion but at the end of the day – you shouldn’t feel responsible for her financial condition. One more point – She wrote “sharing this information is almost a responsibility given from the divine to spread to humanity to make this world a better place and the excessive cost being charged seems contradictory to any and all spiritual principles.” Susan – you do plenty and don’t need to accept this guilt trip. She wants what she cannot afford and needs to temper her desires and make use of the many free resources that you and others make available.

    • Posted by:  susan

      Brian, I appreciate this thoughtful and encouraging comment. Very kind of you to send it!

  • Posted by:  Ethan

    Susan, I think the fact that you even had to write this shows how poorly treated ALL teachers are in our world, not just spiritual or dharma teachers. This, to my mind, is the number one marker of our warped economic values. As a teacher who makes my living teaching , I can verify firsthand that the way to spread something far and wide is to make it a livelihood that folks can actually pursue and become well trained at. Without a livelihood infrastructure, very few services in our society spread at all. So yes, you should be paid. And you should use the money you receive to gather the resources you need to take care of yourself in order to benefit as many people as possible, which you couldn’t do if you had another job. But you already know that, and you are already doing that. Keep going – and I hope your students realize how valuable what you offer is, and support you accordingly.

    • Posted by:  susan

      Thank you for pointing out the most important issue.Spot on and strong.

    • Posted by:  Tammy

      Amen to Ethan’s post! Ethan, you remind me of an article I read once that stated the primary reason teachers are so put upon is because teaching has traditionally been a female role (at least in the U.S.). Women are socialized to believe we should give ourselves away; we should always be available to do for and care for others first. In fact, we feel guilty when we take care ourselves, even when we’re last in line to receive our own care! Sadly, we are all socialized to expect that of ourselves and of one another.

      I think male teachers have had some of this expectation ooze onto them, but because their socialization process is different, perhaps it is not as difficult for the gentlemen to shrug it off. Ethan, if you are a teacher, I look forward to reading any thoughts you’d like to add.

      • Posted by:  Ethan

        I never thought about it as a gender issue but that is a really brilliant point Tammy. Like Susan, I make my living teaching Buddhism, and deal with all the weird poverty mentalities that exist around the transmissional and educational process in these communities.

        I think there’s—in addition to the gender point that you made—there is an even deeper point about the warped economic values of our society. We tend to more greatly value things which are just based on self-interest and greed then livelihoods that are based on service and doing things for the benefit of others, especially the long-term benefits of somebody’s future experience.

        Our economic priorities are exactly backwards. Generosity and service should be rewarded and compensated, but instead greed is rewarded. This has got to change.

  • Posted by:  Kathleen

    This feels like a reminder of how entrenched our ideas about money and worth and good and evil are. On the one extreme you have the spiritual person wandering from place to place offering Truth and Wisdom and asking for nothing and the other side has the greedy corporate overlords pillaging at will. These caricatures are not serving us anymore.

    There is value in what you offer and money is a valid and useful form of exchange. I wish you many blessings and much success.

    • Posted by:  susan

      Thank you and I agree totally–the caricatures no longer serve.

    • Posted by:  Tammy

      Kathleen, your post has given me food for thought and I thank you for that. Money as representation in the ever popular dichotomy of good vs evil is a fascinating concept.

  • Posted by:  KCLAnderson (Karen)

    I don’t have anything to add except my support and agreement with how you handled this situation. It really does come down to needs and we’re all responsible for making sure our own needs are met (which can look a whole lot of different ways). Even Jesus had to make sure of that.

    • Posted by:  susan

      Yes!

  • Posted by:  Miriam

    Love the post, the honest reflections, the questions and the comments. I completely agree with – and appreciate the analogy about doctors. I think about this daily. Thank you! –

    • Posted by:  susan

      It is a complex thing, worthy of much thought.

  • Posted by:  Chelsea

    In case you haven’t seen it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfAzi6D5FpM

  • Posted by:  Tammy

    I just wanted to give a giant “Thank You” for your generosity. I appreciate that you give back by offering free meditations for anyone who wishes to meditate with you. {{{hugs}}}
    Tammy

    • Posted by:  susan

      Thank you, love!

  • Posted by:  Luciana

    Dear Susan,

    To start with, I think that your reply was a little harsh–‘I’m not sure if you are actually interested in my take on these points…’ She asked you for your take, and I wish that you had assumed that she was being sincere.

    That being said, the issue IS complex. I think that your free teachings make up for the cost of your classes. And you do have to support yourself.

    The one exception that I would note is that the retreats that I have heard about from you are in resort-like settings, often not centrally located for hardly anyone. So there’s quite a cost involved in just getting there, not to speak of the resort costs. I would like to see some retreats held in US cities, and not necessarily only the glamorous ones. (And maybe you do have retreats in these places, and I just haven’t heard about them.)

    Thank you for all of your teachings.

    • Posted by:  susan

      Actually, I was not sure if she was actually interested in my take. That was simply the truth. I felt like she wanted me to hear her opinion more than she wanted to hear mine. Of course I could have been mistaken.

      Regarding my retreats, I teach mostly in Vermont and Colorado at Buddhist retreat centers that are luxurious from a spiritual perspective but pretty simple otherwise. By the way, I don’t schedule these retreats, I simply respond to invitations from these venues. I am teaching in France, also at a Buddhist retreat center that is far from resort-like. That said, if a resort got in touch with me, I’d probably say yes!!

      • Posted by:  Luciana

        I am probably mistaken about the retreats then, or maybe am thinking about the writing retreats–I’m sorry.

        Have you ever thought about student and senior discounts for your programs? Maybe you could even increase the other admission fees a little to make up for that?

  • Posted by:  Zoe Nicholson

    yes, you do have the right and the duty to be paid. It is an honest transaction and you live in 2014. Gandhi had a full sponsor as did Alice Paul. Entire farms are donated and homes to support teachers.

    • Posted by:  susan

      Yes, these are good examples.

  • Posted by:  Elizabeth
  • Posted by:  Warren

    How I interpreted Blank’s message:

    “You have no right to trade your knowledge in return for anything beyond basic sustenance. I can’t afford your course but would like to participate. It’s your duty to spread the word to as many as possible, so…. please lower your price to what I think is fair and/or offer it for free. I want to learn but am not willing to prioritise it.”

    And yet, your back catalogue of free education could take months or even years to work through.

    • Posted by:  susan

      It took months or years to create it!

  • Posted by:  Patricia

    hi Susan,
    perhaps not the right place for this comment but i’ve been trying to access the 21 day immersion which i signed up for (late) but could not access. perhaps because i signed up late the sign up process does not work properly. i did not know it was $300 – it was never stated. when i click on links to the program it asks for a password. and elsewhere on the site it has login access but i could see no where to sign up. i am assuming now that i have read this blog entry that it is probably log in access to paid content. which is all fine but very confusing as i was never given this information and could not find any information on the site.i did receive emails about the 21 day immersion after signing up. a lot of time spent trying to access. perhaps a glitch with the signup now that the course has started? maybe there should be a redirect to page saying it is paid content or the course has started and not accessible? i can’t afford it at the moment (and i don’t have a problem with people charging, or a least resigned to it :)) i would just like to be able to navigate easily and to know what the log in is for (paid content) and i’m sure you would like your followers to have this experience. so i am just letting you know my confusion and frustration so perhaps it can remedied. and i do look forward to exploring all the free content – thank you!

    • Posted by:  susan

      Patricia, I’m sorry for any confusion and frustration! We will check into it on this end to see what went wrong. For what it’s worth, this is the first time I’ve heard from someone having trouble accessing the material. That doesn’t mean there was no glitch with your transaction; will check into it now.

      In the meantime, please email me directly (susan@susanpiver.com) about whether you’d like to start now or be reimbursed. Thanks, Susan

      • Posted by:  Patricia

        hi susan,
        just to be clear, i never paid nor was i asked for any money. that’s what was confusing. i thought it was a free program you just submitted your email for and then i couldn’t access. i think somehow the whole enrollment process got skipped and i just got on an email list. thanks for the quick response.

        • Posted by:  susan

          Oh, okay. I think your guess is correct! Somehow you got on the wrong list. Apologies. We’ll make sure you get on the right list! Look for your next Open Heart Project email on Thursday and do let me know if you encounter problems.

          To access the material I believe you’re looking for, just go here. There is no need to log in, nor is a password required. If you would, bookmark this link until I make my website less confusing…

          Let me know if this answers your question.

          Please enjoy your practice! Susan

  • Posted by:  brett

    you know, Susan, i’ve thought about this a lot for a lot of years. from my early days in martial arts, through yoga and now on into buddhism and meditation, the question always comes up: why do we have to pay our teachers?

    as a kung fu student, i had to pay a monthly fee for my classes. however, supporting my teacher was a separate responsibility and students were expected to make regular contributions of anything they were able, which included meals, plane tickets, clothes, cars, whatever was needed that one could contribute or contribute to. in return, you had a close relationship with someone who was a grand master in that lineage and you made it possible for him to dedicate his life to teaching. if you didn’t have money, it wasn’t a problem. if you did, you were expected to contribute.

    i’ve heard similar criticisms of yoga studios and teachers, and there is a small handful of them that have gotten very wealthy off teaching what they know. however, more often than not, yoga teachers are poorly paid, studios struggle to pay their bills, and the $20 one pays for a class barely covers costs. in order to teach, you need a space to do it in and that comes with its attendant bills. in order to be a teacher, you need some way to make some money so you can do crazy things like pay your electric bill and eat.

    i don’t see how this is any different for dharma teachers, who still need to make a living and cover the expenses of teaching.

    i think the person who has written to you here hasn’t really thought about what it’s like to be in your shoes, that you have your own expenses and bills to pay, just like everyone else. possibly they could have asked if it would be possible for them to take the course at a discounted rate because they wanted to so badly. regardless, i think it’s a good moment to reflect on compassion: this person seems to be thirsty for the knowledge on offer, but unable to pay the tuition. i can tell you from experience that it’s a shitty way to feel. regardless, no one should call into question your right to make a living by sharing what you’re good at.

    • Posted by:  susan

      Brett, thank you for these thoughts. I agree–it is a shitty way to feel, that you can’t afford something your really want. I just had this experience myself yesterday. A friend is going to a highly-regarded program that costs thousands of dollars. For a week. I can’t afford it and that makes me sad. (However, it does not make me mad.)

      I appreciate the story of your Kung Fu teacher and I really respect the tradition of students supporting their teacher at their own election. However, for us in the West, that is simply not an option.

      It is very complicated to figure this all out and thoughtful comments such as yours are important. Love, S

  • Posted by:  Curtis G. Schmitt

    This is a very personal issue for the service provider, and as complicated as each individual’s own psychology. At the risk of oversimplifying, here’s how I’ve come to understand it for myself:

    Everything a person needs to grow is out there for free. Your public library gives you access to thousands and thousands of books, plus Internet access to all of the articles and videos, etc. Nobody is wanting for information.

    That said, most of us (including me), need to play out this little drama of paying money before we value the information we receive. To say it another way, the application of information is the challenging part, and most of us need to make an investment that justifies the effort it will take. Not everyone, but most people.

    With 2 exception in the hundreds of clients I’ve served, I’ve seen a direct correlation between the amount of money people pay me for my training and the commitment they make to applying that training in their lives. Early on, I was easily swayed by people’s stories of how they couldn’t afford what I was asking. I gave discounts (sometimes 100%) and watched them do nothing. I watched them miss our appointments, I watched them not do what they said they would each week, and I even watched them disappear. That felt horrible. I felt like a failure.

    So now I charge what I charge, and I happily refer people who can’t afford it to the free resources that I’ve vetted as truly useful and valuable.

    But emails like the one you received still sting. It sure is a crazy dance, isn’t it? 🙂

    • Posted by:  Daniel Endy

      Well said!

    • Posted by:  susan

      I understand and appreciate the dynamic you point to–it is very real. And yes, a crazy dance indeed…

  • Posted by:  Jennifer Matesa

    I’ve thought about this a great deal. I write about addiction and recovery, and many people in recovery assume that I should not charge for what I write. In fact, I often assume this. I’m sober by grace, goes the thinking, and in order to stay sober I need to give away my experience.

    This is true to a certain extent—just as it is true for you as a Buddhist teacher. You give away a certain amount of your experience. It’s good karma, for one thing.

    But I’m also sober by hard work, and I can’t share all that work for free.

    I don’t charge for personal interactions that I choose to have. That goes for my sponsees and for people whose emails I choose to answer. I get quite a bit of email, and it has taken me some discernment practice to learn how many of these I want to answer. I try to answer as many as I can, but I’m becoming more skilled at recognizing when I’m being tapped out. People ask questions for which, if they paid attention, they could find answers either on my blog or elsewhere. But a lot of people don’t want to do the work. They want me (us) to do the work for them.

    They also want to have the experience of being in touch with an “expert.” Anyone who has really read my blog, used it as a resource, knows that I do not consider myself an “expert,” I consider myself a beginner, but they see I’ve written books and have an extensive body of work and they might think I have a nice face and they want personal attention—but they don’t want to pay.

    This isn’t true of everyone. I had one person (exactly one in four years, mind you) ask me whether she could pay me to show her gratitude for my time and attention. We had exchanged a number of in-depth emails about her pot problem, and she’d been able to quit after 35 years of heavy smoking. This led to a raise, a promotion, and nomination to a prominent board in her community. She insisted on giving me money, but I told her No, I don’t take payment: I’m not a counselor. And I felt good about that decision. But the law of karma is strong: one day I opened my FB messages to discover that she had sent me a gift certificate to a designer shoe-shop, for $500. After some discernment, I decided to accept the gift. My sponsor pointed out that I still have a problem accepting compensation and sort of ordered me to accept. It’s a self-worth problem.

    I’m glad you wrote this post. I’m very glad you were honest about feeling rage. I think money is the last taboo subject in our culture. Many people hate people who have lots of money, and they also hate people who are poor—anyone who’s not like them, in other words. I don’t have a solution for the culture-wide problem, but I know that in my microcosm I can keep working to accept compensation, to demand it actually—to stop writing in-depth stories for $300, to keep in mind my long-term security and health, and to put myself in touch with a community of people who are interested in responsible earning. One commenter above mentioned the idea of “selling spirituality,” and I don’t think that’s what you’re doing. You’re creating communities and bringing them to market. (Seth Godin’s ideas about marketing, specifically the new niche marketing and “tribes,” apply here: http://www.onbeing.org/program/seth-godin-art-noticing-and-then-creating/transcript/5004) The reality is that in most cases access to community costs something—whether it’s a potluck dish, a willingness to work on behalf of the community, a fee, whatever. I find that the more I give, the more I get back.

    Which is one reason I’m writing this comment.

    Another is, I just like you, I like hearing your voice and seeing your face twice a week, I liked the workshop you gave in NYC last November, and you asked for more commentary—I want to oblige that request. cheers, Susan. /Jen

    • Posted by:  susan

      It is the last taboo, I agree. And when it comes to determining what to charge, it is just so personal. And it’s interesting that in our arena (healing, spirituality), people have opinions about what we should earn. That is the part that triggers me.

      Thanks for the feedback and hope you’re well!

  • Posted by:  Daniel Endy

    We come to the physical world for these very experiences. We come to worlds like this one where there is a mindset of scarcity. These are wonderful catalysts for personal insight and growth.

    The comments above capture the issues well.
    Do you feel worthy?
    Do you give freely?
    Are you as good at receiving as you are at giving?
    What are you worth?
    Why?
    Etc …

    The central issue here is abundance.
    Every issue has two sides and shades of gray in between.
    Feeling there isn’t enough is a disease in our society.
    We are all abundant, it’s just that some choose to be abundantly lacking.

    There are no wrong paths. When one sees clearly, one sees that the all rightness and wrongness are purely a matter of perspective and definition. It’s all good unless we choose to believe otherwise. So the question is not one of rightness. It’s simply a matter of choice for every party in every perspective, in every relationship, in every experience, and in every exchange.

    These are great areas of potential insight and growth. That’s what we have come for!

    Namasté – the divine in me recognizes the divine in you (and in all things),

    Daniel

    • Posted by:  susan

      These are excellent questions.

  • Posted by:  Jason Gallagher

    Dear Susan,

    Thank you for bringing this important topic forth and opening to our opinions on the subject. First, I just want to say that you have always been very generous in your giving when it comes to the open heart community, whether it be the free meditations, the FB group, your answering of e-mails and questions, the scholarships for the practitioner practice, or this post. For all of this I am extremely grateful, and I have personally benefited without spending a dime. You clearly have a loving heart and that can not be denied. *BIG HUGS*

    With that said, I do agree, mostly, with the person who sent the e-mail. This is a subject for which I have put in much thought, and I have a strong passion concerning. As I was debating in my head my response to your post, I realized exactly how much passion I have for this subject! To boil down my argument, I believe that information and knowledge are the greatest tools that any person can posses, and that access to information/knowledge should always be free and open. Furthermore, it can be said that spiritual knowledge is the highest of knowledge, and thus has an even greater responsibility to be shared freely and openly. This does not, however, mean that teachers should not be paid or compensated for their services. Like any important service job – doctor, therapist, school teacher, police officer, military officer, fire and emt response, etc – the individuals deserve to be paid for their time and service. You, Susan, deserve to be paid for your service. The information, and access to the service, should never be limited to only those of means, and the goal of compensation should never be solely to profit. By “profit” I mean “to gather financial compensation for the sole means of gaining as much money as possible.” To bring in as much money as possible in order to expand service, improve quality of service, and give to as many as possible, is how income should be spent. The money then becomes a means to better serve the purpose of giving. It should be further noted that I don’t think you should limit yourself to living in poverty and being minimalist (though you are certainly welcome to if you choose), and do deserve to ask for, and receive, compensation to live a “comfortable” life. What defines “comfortable” and where the line turns to “superfluous and grand” is debatable, but I think as long as you are keeping a check on yourself by asking from time to time “is this too much” then you are probably doing just fine.

    I think that it is important to consider carefully those that truly can not afford to pay. I was, and am in this position, and sometimes I do feel left out (not completely, but from time to time.) Please, also note, I am talking more generally, and not just about your programs Susan, but about spiritual teachers in general who charge for their services. I do agree it’s my responsibility to give of myself in order to gain from the knowledge, but giving comes in so many forms. How else can I give back to Susan and/or the greater community? Can I spread the word? Can I give of my services in return? Wealth doesn’t always present itself in the form of money.

    I am not sure how to neatly wrap this up, as I have such a grander ideal in my head of why this should be, what it means for society, where society has done good previously, and where we are going wrong. But I will spare you the entire thesis at this point. Nor have I even fully and completely formed it. I only hope that this gives you Susan, and everyone, including myself, something to consider and ponder.

    Thank you for the opportunity.
    —Jason

    • Posted by:  susan

      Jason, many thanks for taking the time to express your thoughts on this topic. It is truly a new frontier because in the past, teachers were mostly monastics who lived and worked in a place where food and shelter were provided so they could focus on their spiritual pursuits and offerings. It’s different now and it is truly fascinating to see how it will all play out. I see that we both hope it will turn out in such a way that the most people possible can avail themselves of the teachings they seek.

      The part that upset me (stupidly) about the email from Blank was not that she wished I or others would charge less so that more people could avail themselves–what upset me was that she had an opinion of how much money was acceptable for me to earn and had placed her own benchmarks on my life and work.

      The dance continues as another commenter above said! Warmly, Susan

  • Posted by:  Barbara Erb

    Dear Susan,
    I struggle with this same question in my work. Below is the answer I would send back to Blank, if I had done what you are doing for all.
    Love, Barbara

    Dear Blank,

    I have read your email carefully. I want to tell you that I, too, have struggled with the spirituality vs. payment question. It is a dilemma which many of us have in this work. How much should I charge? Can I take care of myself and offer what I have to give to everyone? For this reason, I have chosen to give free video meditation instruction to over 12,000 people for 3 years now. It is my gift to everyone, regardless of what economic position they are in.

    I noticed that you seem to have a belief that I am not allowing people their “enlightenment” by charging for one seminar, as are others are doing who charge for their work. I ask you to consider, “Is this really true?” To be awake is something that is available to anyone, no matter how much money they have. Anyone who has a computer available can watch my videos and meditate on their own. There is abundant material for anyone to read, as well, on millions of sites on the internet. I believe what it takes to awaken is an undying longing and intention to awaken above all. That and putting the actions of your life to meet this intention, is necessary. No one can stop it, if this is your primary goal.

    We all make choices. If you honestly felt that this class was the most important choice in your life that you could make, I am wondering why you didn’t just write me asking if there was any way you could do something in like payment to make it happen? Or maybe make a choice to give up something in order to take it?

    Thank you for your letter, reminding me once again how important it is to take care of myself and also be generous to others. I will constantly be walking that tightrope.

    With generosity of Heart,

    Barbara

    • Posted by:  susan

      What a lovely response, Barbara.

    • Posted by:  Jason Gallagher

      Barbara,

      I agree, this is a great response. I would recommend a similar response. If only all discussion could be held with such level of civility.

      Thank You.

  • Posted by:  David

    The following email exchange (edited for brevity and salience) that I had with Lodro Rinzler with whom Susan is teaching an online course. It speaks as well as anything to indicate where both their hearts lie on this challenging issue. Lodro had sent out an email announcing the course.

    From me to Lodro:

    “Read your book, Lodro. It was outstanding. I absolutely loved it. I’ve been away from the Boston [Shambhala] Center [where Lodro was once the director] and, I’m ashamed to say, from practice for a while but a month or so ago, I read your book, though it was focused more on young singles (I’m a 65 year old attached single) it was a really good refresher. You hit on all the salient points as I remember them…

    Susan Piver, with whom I think long ago I took a course or two, is also familiar to me. I just subscribed to her website last week and already love it. I also took some courses or attended some Open Houses where she was speaking and loved them too. Though I’d love to take this course, I have to count my pennies in retirement and can’t afford even the modest fee.

    Mainly, I wanted to let you know how much I loved the book.

    Hope all is well with you.

    Best,

    David Nollman

    Lodro’s reply:

    “Hello David,

    Thank you for your very kind message. I remember you, and am so glad to hear from you after so long.

    I chatted with Susan and we want to offer you a 50% discount to attend the class. If that sounds good to you, let me know. We’re only giving out about five scholarships but would love to have you join us.”

    Best,
    Lodro

    Note that the two of them took it upon themselves to make this generous offer on their own without my even having asked them to do it.

    • Posted by:  susan

      Glad you’ll be part of the program, David!

  • Posted by:  Sidney

    I question the kindness of publishing an anonymous e-mail, which to be fair, only asked questions that many commenters also asked about fair compensation for spiritual guidance. We may not know who the “stranger” was who sent the e-mail, but she knows who she is, and she knows that her letter was so far off your reservation that it “enraged” you. By publishing the e-mail and indicating your displeasure with it, you invited others to share your indignation and pile on if they felt your work had been disrespected.
    I would also point out that though you offer your weekly meditations for free, you also solicit contributions for these meditations, which muddies the water a bit. Many professionals (as well as people of all walks of life) give freely of their time and expertise to their communities.

    • Posted by:  susan

      Agreed on all points. I hoped I was being clear that I knew I was neither as sensible nor as kind as I could have been.

      And it is true, many professionals give freely to their community but, presumably, they earn money at their “profession.” This work is my profession. Doctors don’t ask for contributions, nor do plumbers or teachers or chefs. Those in my profession, however, may be questioned for doing so. It is very confusing and, yes, it makes me angry when my decisions about earnings are considered dubious by others or even subject to opinion. I’m not saying I have a right to be angry, just that I am (or was). It is my responsibility and I don’t blame anyone for it.

      I’ve been offering these meditation videos for free for three years. I wish to continue to do so and I also need to earn an income. The choices for me then are to either stop doing it altogether; dial it back to once a week or a month; start charging everyone; or ask those who partake of this work to contribute to it if it is easy to do so. (However, it is 100% optional.)

      I too have bills and a family and, hopefully, a future that includes food and a place to live!

  • Posted by:  Vicky

    “Coincidentally”, this morning I read this post of yours, Susan, just after reading this by Ram Dass

    http://www.ramdass.org/walking-dharma/

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      Wonderful!

  • Posted by:  Melissa

    Susan, i think that the solution to this perennial problem is to offer work scholarships or just plain ‘scholarships’ … to those individuals who need a) financial help; and b) can, in 1 paragraph of essay/application form, explain why they are attracted to meditation as modality for … (and then specify what: i.e. healing, life management issues, etc.); Then choose the recipient based on your criteria .. to the most sincere person. Within defined barameters, this should solve the problem.
    A simple rebuttal then, would be: We do have scholarships available. Please apply. The rest is an age old argument.. It is important in my opinion to show gratitude to the many men and women who came before you and simply made v. little money for forging a place for a new generation to prosper. They didn’t have the luxury of agreeing or disagreeing… though i do see there is a fine line between forging a place for a foundation in the future and just trying to make a living. Namaste.

  • Posted by:  susan

    Every choice has its price, and in this case, charging $300 for your program carried a price of receiving some negative feedback.

    No right. No wrong. Some feedback from a reader was given as a result. Valuable? Only you can answer this question for yourself. Perhaps it would be prudent to include a note at the bottom of any of your for-fee offerings containing helpful links to specific free content on your site for those with limited resources.

    I try to remind myself that the most important piece of any spiritual puzzle is the motivation fueling any action. Motivation is the foundation. Start with your “why” as Simon Sinek says.

    I left a Buddhist group a few years ago because the emphasis on money became so loud it began crowding out the actual teaching. My bottom line was a far cry from the roshi’s, who resides in a home worth well over $1million… on the surface, it sounds ludicrous, but then again, I have no idea what her real situation was or is.

    It wasn’t so much the fact they were asking for more money–this I can understand when an organization needs to pay bills. Rather, it was the grasping spirit with which donations were pushed for and an apparent assumption that in a very wealthy community, all in attendance could actually afford to give more than they were already giving. Brene Brown would have quickly picked up on a shaming mechanism. (By the way, I admire the vulnerability in this post, which shows humanity and strength as a teacher.)

    I do not think you are coming from this place of energy in any way, I assure you. Susan, you are a wonderful and clear teacher. I share the story because it may be good to keep in mind there really are some graspy teachers out there who really do blur the lines at the expense of the financial health of their following. (If one has a “following” it could be cause for pause, actually.) You certainly need to cover your costs and make a living, but it is imperative love and compassion infuses what is offered–doing otherwise could slam the door shut on the progress of students.

    The Dharma is priceless, yes? And thus, the story goes, putting a price tag on it makes no sense. In a world where just one being moves closer to full awareness, we all benefit, immeasurably.

    How to make this work in our messed up culture is the big question, isn’t it?

    with much love… xoxo.

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

  • Posted by:  A

    I’m sorry Susan but this whole discussion doesn’t feel well.Publishing her letter ,knowing you have 12000 followers feels like taking revenge in the Middle Ages.You surely knew that most people would support you .It feels lik saying : shame on you ! To that person ,while 12000 others can give their likes or not likes.I think delete had been a better option .

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      Shame on me. I agree. I did not handle this well. Although I do stand by my points and opinions and guard your right to express your own. And PS, 12000 people did not receive this blog post, only those who happen to read my blog (which is not sent out via email).

      • Posted by:  A

        Apologize ,you are right about what you say in your ps.
        I just thought that choosing a profession an acquiring a reasonable income was one of the human rights !So no much to discuss for the countries who agreed.
        The fact that people judge other people for what they earn is not at all a spirtitual issue ,it happens for different professions all over the world.
        And I am still gratefull for all your videomeditations.

        • Posted by:  Susan Piver

          And I’m grateful for the conversation.

  • Posted by:  Karla E.

    I appreciate this discussion, its cordiality, honesty and humanness!

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      Me too.

  • Posted by:  Chris

    Susan – i so appreciate your thoughtful response as well as those who wrote comments.

    I think you are doing exactly the right thing – of course, you must provide for yourself and your family – and I look forward to the time when i can be a paid member and take a workshop with you in person.

    With thanks and appreciation,

    Chris

  • Posted by:  Jill Cruse

    Susan, I loved your response. The “critical” always tests our egos. For me, it’s a matter of standing in your own light and not taking things personally. I live by Don Miguel Ruiz’ “Four Agreements” and when people question my intentions, I realize it is about them and not about me. If I know I have done my best, I can look at the “critical” in a calm, thoughtful light and decide what is there to learn from, and what to discard. Sometimes just the right explanation will open their eyes. I had something similar happen to me today when we were accused of overcharging for a travel package. She felt we were gouging her and taking advantage of the market. Once I could speak with her and educate her on that which she did not know, her whole demeanor and perception changed. And in the end? She just wanted acknowledgement of her feelings and to be seen and heard. Now, little does she know you gave her some “free” spiritual advice, after all :-). ‘Looking forward to meeting you in Hawaii in August 🙂

  • Posted by:  Catarina

    This is kinda bizzare as I happened on this discussion while trying to find a link to make a small donation, as I very much appreciate your teachings. So, really, could you send a link? Could not find one on the website.

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      Thanks, Catarina! Here you go.

  • Posted by:  Free Spirit

    I can share I walked through the whole spectra of charging for spiritual teaching. Three years ago – I was free to anyone who wanted it. The trouble is – as well as not being able to support yourself, no-one values it and thus derives no value from it. I then made it affordable (and thus cheaper than its real worth) and the same happened. I now charge what the teachings are really worth and ask for $15,000 for my top end Level 2 private video materials. I do not give anything away for free at all (casting pearls before those who do not respect its value). In the end – the reality is that spiritual teaching is the most valuable thing there is. The fact that most of humanity does not see that is beside the point. It is worth what it is worth. Anyone who is charitable at the expense of their own self worth will ultimately degrade Source and fall out of alignment with Spirit.

  • Posted by:  Free Spirit

    Just to add to my last comment – the matter of not being paid as a spiritual teacher is simply a manipulation of the karmice energy that teachers teach people to transcend. If you do not charge then you just play into the hand of karma and have taught the other party nothing other than to remain in the illusion of their karma created ideas of how things should be. In my opinion and experience – choice 2 combined with choice 4 is the way to being well provided for and authentic as a teacher.

  • Posted by:  Eileen Burns

    This person just wanted to be heard. If she is hurting financially she already feels that she has no voice. You did her the great service of contemplating what she’d said, of writing about it, of spreading her word and giving her a platform for her voice. In fact, in my view, she is a spiritual teacher. She asked you to hear her. And she was not paid for what she (together with your insight) taught all of us who read this essay….Listen, listen, listen to what people are trying to say….. Fees are a necessity. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to pay. I tutor children, some of whom live in homes where there are no computers, where there is no internet connectivity. Children…..It’s a tremendous responsibility to teach, to hear, to weigh each situation. I see that you are offering some scholarships for an upcoming program. This will help you to balance your need to support yourself against the needs of folks who are…in need. Blessings, Eileen

  • Posted by:  Eileen Burns

    P.S…..I read this after listening to your story about the poor woman you chased around the Round About in Boston. Try to imagine that it was she who wrote this letter…It will soften the rough edges a bit.

  • Posted by:  Didi

    I know I might be a little late but I wanted to express my view on this topic. As far as I can see, what you are dealing with is very simple and it’s a direct consecuence of capitalism. Basically, this is the confrontation between the double nature of things. To us, people, things have 2 “souls” One is the use of it, that is what we use it for, say for example a brick is just something made from clay but to us it has value because se use it to build houses. Your teachings also have this kind of value, that is to help people develop a whole new level of awareness and thus becoming more and more enlightened (if I really understand you…) The second nature of things is the “cost” An apple is a fruit we can use as food BUT when we add a monetary dimension to it, it no longer is a fruit, it becomes merchandise. What happens then if people have no money to buy them or maybe only 3/4 of a certain ammount of apples aren’t sold? Well they get thrown into the bin and rot away… So what you are discussing is the confrontation between these 2 natures. The problem is not that you should feel bad or not about charging people money for your classes. What you should really think about is why you need to obtain money to live and what is money anyway? Just paper…

  • Posted by:  Kyle

    I’d like to offer this link, to an article discussing the very matter of spiritual teachers, money, and respect. Have a read:

    http://keystospiritualascension.com/spiritual-teachers-money-and-respect/

  • Posted by:  Michael

    My very humble opinion… “offer love for free. If it has a price, it isn’t love.”

    If ever I’m in a position to change the world for the better, I will not look for profit in doing so. I can always find a job for compensation. The idea is to want for every man and woman as you want for yourself. For myself, I wish to live in a world that treats everyone like family. I wish for a world that offers a better way.

    Peace & Love,

    Michael

  • Posted by:  tv-maniak.pl

    I was more than happy to discover this web site. I want to to thank you
    for your time just for this wonderful read!! I definitely liked
    every little bit of it and i also have you bookmarked to see new information in your web site.

  • Posted by:  Jolee

    That was a genuine email from “blank” and I have to say that in general I agree with it. Unfortunately I felt your response came from ego, or a defense mechanism, without really considering the sender’s (valid) viewpoint..agree to disagree, I suppose. We’re all entitled to our opinions.

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      Yes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *