“He turned around, looked at me, and said, ‘I will rearrange your face.’”
Nina grabbed my leg and stretched it as she continued her story.
“But you know what? I was really proud of myself. He didn’t cock his arm back. I saw that. He wasn’t actually going to hit me. So I didn’t flinch.”
She pulled on my leg and spoke faster, words rattling out of her like a blender whose top had popped and the churning liquid had erupted.
“The next morning, he tried to pretend nothing had happened and said, ‘Good morning, honey bunny,’ but I didn’t let him pretend nothing happened. I called him out on it.”
She was talking about her live-in boyfriend. She was talking about my teacher.
More than two years earlier, I’d found him online and he offered a free coaching session. A few minutes before we were slotted to hop on Skype, my gut rustled and told me that this was a bullshit consult designed to sell me.
My gut was correct, but he was a decent salesman. We talked about parts of my life that had room for improvement. I was half-persuaded and half-gawking at sales relics that were still plodding along. “I see that you gave yourself a 69 out of a potential 100 for your financial life… it looks like there’s room for improvement.”
Halfway through the consult, he said, “Excuse me, my tea is ready.” I sat in my chair, staring through a Skype window to a blurry painting on one of his walls, until he sauntered back to his camera, teacup in hand.
Was that a technique for dominating or was he just a brainless tea-lover?
I decided to sign up for his online coaching.
Our sessions sucked yet he managed to give just enough value to make me think, “Well, okay, I’ll keep going.” He corrected my body mechanics for pushing and pulling with maximum power. According to him, this was the foundation for working with energy.
He was one of the most kinesiologic-ally proficient people I’d met. Even through the grainy Skype screen, he pointed out where a certain part of my body was off balance or tense. Whatever questions I asked about energy, he always dragged the subject back to muscular tension. Whenever I thought our training would venture into the spiritual realm, we’d end up talking about how to punch or push with maximum power. But I wasn’t interested in martial arts – I wanted to dive deeper into mysticism. He vaguely promised we were headed that way.
For two years, I learned from him via Skype and in person. Some odd things happened.
At a live training, one of his students spent the final afternoon sprawled on the couch. When Tom asked how she was doing, she wriggled, giggled, and slurred some response with a bunch of vowels.
But, hey, sometimes spiritual training can make someone a bit “spirit drunk,” right? Happens all the time. Except, as time went on, she seemed to always act like that and our teacher didn’t find it strange.
Before a training I ran into Tom and another student co-working at a coffee shop. They were writing emails for his business. Five minutes after I sat down, Tom clapped his hands together and said, “Let’s do some training.” He left the emails half-written.
He couldn’t get out of his comfort zone to finish work on his business.
But, hey, sometimes it’s good to go with the flow, right?
Except I knew he struggled with his marketing, even though he claimed he had a successful business.
At a retreat, Tom’s girlfriend, Nina, practiced with us. In the training hall, they got into an argument. “Well,” she said, “I know that you’re a robot…”
He stood before her, staring, motionless. Was he being Buddha-like or robot-like? Since I’d known him, Tom had spoken and moved like a well-oiled robot programmed for maximum efficiency. That, he claimed, was the key to success. Rid yourself of tension. Never waste a movement, even in how you open a door or grip a steering wheel. Go with the flow. Somehow, this translated to spiritual development and success in life.
He spoke as if his business thrived. He even began teaching how to start a coaching business. At their condo, as a back-and-forth got sharper between him and Nina, she said, “Well, I pay the mortgage with my income from body work sessions. So as I’m supporting you…”
Wait. His girlfriend pays the mortgage?
Yet he’s portraying himself as successful enough in business to teach others? So much for his system of cultivating success. He became like a human Magic Eye picture that I’d finally gotten to pop. His monotone personality wasn’t because of an enlightened nature or his Eastern European background. It was because he stuffed his emotional wounding so deep and so thoroughly he could plaster it with physical prowess and a PeeWee Herman-deep philosophy on how to navigate life.
Then came Nina’s confession about Tom’s threat. She was treating my legs and hips during a body-working session when she admitted that he’d said he’d rearrange her face. Why? Because she called him out for clogging the garbage disposal.
But then she rattled off her excuses.
“His ex-wife treated him horribly… his mom’s a real piece of work… his heart was so closed off… he asked me to marry him and I said, ‘Heck no’… I always pick guys who are wounded… that’s my pattern with men…”
At least she knew she had a pattern.
Around this time, I reconnected with another teacher. It was a man I’d originally searched for, before I got caught up with Tom’s training. This other teacher was holding a live event in Monterey, California, and within ten minutes of discovering it, I signed up.
As the shuttle drifted through the gentle hills to the event, the air felt palpable and alive, but would anyone else be there?
The teacher had barely marketed the gathering. Forty people waited for the studio to open. Within fifteen seconds of joining the group, I flowed into a conversation with three smiling people. I already felt at home. The doors opened. When the teacher started the class, the air turned into a thick ocean of energy. After two hours, I’d learned and embodied more about energy and spiritual development than I had in the previous two years.
The next time I visited Tom was when I got the bodywork session from Nina. A few weeks after that, Tom and I got on Skype.
“This call is going to be quicker than usual,” I said. “I’ve been monitoring the results from your coaching versus my therapist’s help and Daoist training. I’ve gotten the least results from yours and I don’t resonate with it.”
“Great!” he said.
When it came to acting neutral, he walked the walk, displaying efficiency at stuffing emotions that I’ve rarely seen. But then he began outlining how we could work together on my business. Translation: he still wanted me as a paying client. I politely explained that I wanted to learn how to grow a business from someone who actually had a successful business.
“You don’t need to learn from someone who has a big business,” he said. “Just someone who knows how to coach.”
“We’ll have to agree to disagree.”
Break-ups are hard. When we ended our Skype call, I left the door open for us to train “Push Hands” in person. Push Hands is a gentle martial art and he was a master at it. But then my wife gave me a dose of reality. She pointed out how chummy I sounded with Tom on the call. Even as I started to end the relationship, I had fallen back into the “guru and follower” dynamic. She helped me realize I couldn’t in good conscience show up to train with him as if he were anything other than a robotic garbage dumpster.
A day later, I emailed Tom, writing that I didn’t even want to do Push Hands. I’d also paid for a retreat he never put on because – I’m pretty sure – I was the only student who’d bought a ticket. I asked for my money back.
It gets more eerie.
Before I ended my coaching from Tom, I heard bits and pieces from Nina, as if she were trying to whisper a rescue signal. She said she had adrenal burnout and chronic fatigue because she’d worked so hard to maintain the house and financially support Tom.
Tom wrote back that he couldn’t refund me all at once. Nina was diagnosed with breast cancer and he was supporting her through it. He needed to make payments.
At the time of this writing, he’s still making monthly payments to me. At least he’s doing it – I’ll credit him for that. But a coach doesn’t need to be pure Darth Vader to be a bad coach. They can have good qualities yet still be horribly inappropriate for you.
Sometimes, I think about Nina and hope she got out.
But as I said last night as I shared her story with my wife and three of her friends as we gathered around our backyard fire pit, “She’s probably still with him, paying his mortgage.” I hope not. But I also know that when someone’s suffering, I can’t help unless they’re open to receive help.
It’s tough to find a good teacher, whether for your spiritual development or growing a business. The best teachers will trigger you. They might trigger you because they’re perfect for your growth or because your gut recognizes their wrongness.*
Tune into your gut. When your conscious mind screams, “Oh, hell no!” but your gut whispers that you need this, then you’ve probably found the right teacher. When your conscious mind says, “Well, I guess so…” but your gut whispers this ain’t good, strap on your Under Armor and run the other way.
If your gut intuitions and your conscious mind haven’t been on speaking terms lately, here are some ways to mend the relationship:
- How do you feel after your training?
After sessions with Tom, I felt mentally scattered and physically drained. I figured it was because the training was pushing me. But the truth was that Tom was draining me. So how do you tell the difference? This brings us to…
- How does your life improve long-term? Can you confirm any improvements because of what the teacher delivers to you?
If you feel like crap after a training session, don’t toss aside the training. Measure how you change over time before you decide, “To be or not to be.”
- What are the other students like?
Some of Tom’s students were nice, engaging people, but almost half of them seemed… off. I didn’t pay this much heed until I got to Monterey and felt how happy and alive the students of this true teacher were. They looked like a string of Christmas tree lights. Tom’s live events, by comparison, felt like awkward lunch dates at a morgue.
Don’t berate yourself if you commit to learn from a teacher who turns out to be bad. You got a lesson in what to avoid and what you’ve already grown past. Let the teacher go. Don’t berate yourself if letting go is hard and you need a few attempts. I needed to let go twice. Then, when you’re free of your old teacher, you can find the right one for you.
*Getting gut signals like that, and learning from them, is also perfect for your growth.