As a therapist, I am familiar with the many ways that a client can relate to me. Freud taught that therapists should explore transference and countertransference. In transference, the patient projects onto the therapist a meaning that he or she needs to see into. If the patient’s predominant psychic difficulty was manifest with his or her father, for example, that patient might project the meaning of father onto the person of the therapist. The therapist might then expect the patient to manifest attitudes toward him that resembled the patient’s attitudes toward his or her father. When you work as a therapist, this attitude can be so palpable that at times it is as if that father is in the room with you and your patient!
Countertransference is the therapist’s projection onto the patient. Very often, the therapist projects an aspect of him or herself onto his patient. This projected side might be the therapist’s own inner child, or recalcitrant attitudes, or any other aspect of himself that the therapist has not sufficiently transcended. For this reason it is crucial that you choose a therapist who has a great deal of self-awareness. If you don’t, you will be subject to therapist’s projections. The relationship between the therapist and patient can become a dance of projection. If projections are seen through, it can be a great asset to both on the journey of self-discovery. If not seen, the dance of projection ties the exploratory effort in knots.
In the case of the relationship between a spiritual teacher and a student, it is also critical that both be aware of projections. If the teacher is free from attachment, and by that I mean free from the identification with personality as the sole locus of being, then the teacher should be beyond projection as a sticky and rigid way of experiencing life. In other words, if the teacher is awake, what the teacher is awake to would be, in part, the meanings and projections that constitute the bulk of most people’s level of awareness in their relations with one another. An awakened teacher experiences him or herself as both Self and manifestation simultaneously. At least that is my experience. For that reason, although projection and meaning still appear, they also ebb away easily.
As a student, your job is to know the dignity of yourself as human consciousness. You are an invaluable manifestation of Self, precious to the core, even if at this time your life is suffering because you don’t yet know yourself to be free. When you develop a relationship with a teacher, do not surrender your awareness that your true being is Self coming to see itself. You will need to be especially careful to notice what you may be projecting onto your teacher. In psychic terms, if you project your knowing side, or parent side, or wisdom side onto another person, you may be surrendering your power as seer in your own right. On the other hand, you don’t know in the way that the teacher does. Or perhaps it is better to say, you don’t know in the way that the teacher is. If the teacher has not attained a level of freedom greater than yourself, why would you seek the guidance of that teacher?
You must retain the awareness that you are a freedom. You can’t simply believe or follow a teacher as if the teacher knows and you don’t know. On the other hand, you can’t proceed as if you know when you do not. So what is the right attitude?
I like the Zen notion of beginner’s mind. I also like Toni Packer’s presence to the wonder of the moment. Cultivating the openness within yourself to stand in the light, and to abandon what is false is a good starting point.
There are times when a projection onto a teacher becomes so powerful that the student is dominated by what he or she believes is the teacher’s attitude toward him. Each remark, each gesture is interpreted only in light of how the student believes the teacher seems to see him or her. If this is happening to you, your freedom to learn has been compromised by your projections. The teacher doesn’t have the power to free you by his or her relation to you. The teacher can help guide your practice and point out when you may be on the wrong track.
There may be times when it is a good idea to seek out a different teacher. At other times it may be best to stay and struggle with a seeming impasse. It is part of the job of the teacher to help you distinguish these times. Leaving at the wrong time could injure your chances of a break-through. Staying at the wrong time might incarnate an unhealthy relationship founded in projection. These incarnations can be as solid as cement. Internalizing your projections is critical to solving the problems you have in the interpersonal relationships of daily life. Internalizing projection is also critical in drawing your different perceptions into the “heaven of one awareness,” as my teacher said.