42. Backstory

Part VI: My Spiritual Quest   |  43. The Early Years

In titling this part “My Spiritual Quest”, I am making fun of myself. I got the title from a friend
saying someone else’s dharma book should have been titled Let Me Tell You about My Spiritual Quest, something that I had tried to avoid as much as possible in MCTB1. However, I have concluded after receiving much feedback on MCTB1 that it would be worth adding more about my own life and practice so that people will get a better sense of the causality that led to this book, the reasoning, the background, and some of the key experiences and influences that finally led to the words you find here.

I also felt that doing so would help reduce projection, that tendency we all have to ascribe qualities, attributes, emotions, and stories—positive or negative—to other people that are not an accurate assessment of the person but are instead about our own stuff. Projection is inevitable, and most of us do it all the time, myself included, but better data can help to mitigate some of that inevitable projection. The problem when projecting is that we are proceeding from a distorted view of reality, both of ourselves and of the other person or thing. We are likely to be convinced that the people we are projecting specific qualities onto are either far better or far worse than they are, and consequently, by natural comparison, we come to a similarly inaccurate relative assessment of ourselves in the process.

Projection (what Buddhist practice aims to help us overcome) can devastate our practice in many complex and unfortunate ways. If we are needlessly negative about another practitioner or teacher, we may block our ability to learn useful things from them or to see our own shadow sides related to them. If we are exaggeratedly positive about another practitioner or teacher, we may feel that we could never be as good as we imagine they are, and, as a result, we may short-change ourselves and aim low in our own practice. More pragmatically here, if I can help people be themselves by being willing to be myself, I can model a paradigm of realistic practice and realistic self-assessment. Said another way, hopefully a more down-to-earth view may empower people to accept themselves gently while paradoxically always striving to improve. Your own actual life and experience are the keys to good practice, and if you can understand this essential point, this book and my story will have been useful.

Related to projection are the useful psychological concepts of transference and countertransference. Transference is when we take old patterns of relationships, typically from our early childhood, and bring those feelings forward and repeat the same patterns of feelings and interactions with individuals such as teachers, therapists—anyone in fact—who had nothing to do with those original feelings or patterns of interaction. Usually this involves an idealized projection onto the object of the transference. Given that we are creatures of habit and pattern recognition, we do this all the time, as numerous studies have shown. We see someone who reminds us of someone we knew before and begin interacting with that person as if they were the previous person. Thus, this process is normal. However, it can also be maladaptive, in that we may create feelings, relationships, and patterns of interactive behavior that are neither helpful nor skillful, as they do not reflect the actual reality of the other person and may limit the potential benefit from the relationship and cause numerous problems for both parties.

Countertransference is what happens on the other side of the transference scenario, or the side of the teacher, therapist, or basically anyone we might meet. In all relationships, there is some element of countertransference. Countertransference is the transference that the second party creates, and involves both their transference and their interaction with the transference of the other person. Again, this is normal, but awareness of it can help mitigate the problems that countertransference can create.

The common problems that arise in situations with teachers, mentors, coaches, educators, and therapists, etc., is that the student or client begins to think of that other person as either more wonderful, perfect, knowledgeable, holy, attained, or attractive than they actually are, or, conversely, more horrible, flawed, inimical, ignorant, culturally unsophisticated, megalomaniacal, narcissistic, or evil than they actually are. It is not that there might not be some wonderful and/or less than desirable qualities, but these ascribed traits are exaggerated and absolutized as permanent and inherent to the person, rather than revealing something about our own psychodynamic patterns, and thus become a source of fixation. This can generate strong, usually harmful emotions and then strong, usually unskillful reactions and behaviors based on those emotions. Similarly, when the person being transferred onto starts buying into that transference (typically based on the student or client being strongly attracted to or wanting to idealize them) or reacting angrily to that transference (typically based on the student or client being critical of them), that is where the countertransference begins to feed into the problem.

Some people really like transference and will play that game, letting it flow and encouraging it right along with their own intentional countertransference. Some people can skillfully navigate the transference and countertransference to accomplish positive therapeutic or educational goals. In fact, some of that is even expected by many students and clients. They want to be wowed, amazed, entranced, fascinated, and inspired. They may also want someone to challenge, compete with, battle, overcome, or destroy. This is also normal, at least to a degree. However, it can also be a set-up for trouble, for crossing boundaries that maybe shouldn’t have been crossed, for exploitation around the universal temptations of fame, money, power, sex, and drugs, as well as needless injury to one or both parties.

One of the most insidious problems with positive transference and countertransference is that, while it feels good for both parties, it can screw them both up. It is sort of like a dangerous but euphoric drug, as it is a distortion of reality, one that is addictive while causing nasty withdrawal symptoms and other difficulties. We tend to prefer the idealized, fanciful, false relationship, and the feelings we get from that dynamic, even if they are unpleasant, more than we prefer investigating our own reality (through the hard work of meditation) and personal development. Further, if we are the person idealizing the other person, putting them up on some pedestal, then the subtle but very powerful message we get from that dynamic and that we reinforce within ourselves is nearly always that we can’t be as good as they are and thus aren’t as likely to be as successful in our own practice as they have been in theirs.

This is a true tragedy, as most of the time this is simply not true but, unfortunately, it becomes truer for the time that the positive transference and countertransference are going on. There are people to learn from with real skills, real insights to share, and real concentration abilities. There are real paragons of virtue to try to emulate, but there is a way to relate to them that at once acknowledges this but doesn’t turn it into something distorted, discouraging, or disempowering for the student.

There are other problems created for the person being put on the pedestal, of which the temptation to exploit the naivety, body, and wallet of the person putting them on the pedestal is only the most obvious but not necessarily the worst. In my view, just as bad is that the person on the pedestal is now cut off from acknowledging some part of their flawed humanity, as it doesn’t fit the idealized story and role dynamic the two people are generating, such that they become less able to be with who they are. This creates the inevitable shadow sides, as they are called, and shadow sides nearly always cause trouble, coming out in ways that the person now can’t recognize, as the people on the pedestal (and the people who put them there) are cut off from the ability to see their causes clearly due to buying into the transference and countertransference that shadow sides and shadow dynamics create and reinforce.

Positive transference and countertransference also have this nasty way of flipping to negative transference and countertransference when the “honeymoon phase” wears off. This is also common in all relationships: marriages, dating situations, workplaces, and the like. We realize the other person is less perfect than we imagined them to be and then we get angry at them for that, even though they were ordinary the whole time, and we were just busy idealizing them.

Further, the shadow sides created by transference and countertransference and the nearly inevitable bad behavior that follows often makes the person on the pedestal worse than when the two started this strange dance of delusion. I assert that the fall wouldn’t likely be as hard if expectations, disclosures, and reality testing had been better early on, and so we arrive at the reason for presenting the material in this section about my own life—flaws, successes, failures, quirks, and conditioning—that led to what you are now reading. I hope that this lessens transference and countertransference to some degree such that you and I will both benefit in our own lives and practices. I hope that you will be able to draw on your own power, stand on your own two feet, own your own practice, and have your successes and failures (rather than someone else’s) at the forefront of your mind, thus reducing the problems that projection, transference, and countertransference cause. I hope that I will be empowered to keep sharing freely and honestly my dharma practice and life with all its successes and failures among my co-adventurers on the path of the dharma.

So, some will use transference and countertransference unskillfully, giving rise, as mentioned, to abuse and degradation from the individual level all the way to the systemic and entrenched institutional levels. There are those who can, however, navigate transference and countertransference skillfully, using it to push students and clients to disentangle themselves and find their own power, investigate their own experience, and stand on their own two feet without being too wrapped up in the other person. I must admit that my abilities in the skillful use of transference and countertransference basically suck, so I do my best to avoid them as much as possible and instead substitute a coarse and sometimes goofy honesty for what otherwise might be a much better show.

The use of transference and countertransference is always an imperfect business. There will always be flaws in the way this is handled on both sides. Very few individuals have enough knowledge of themselves and of the people they are interacting with, or of the myriad causal factors of this exceedingly complex world we live in, to know precisely the optimal way to handle transference and countertransference in all contexts. That said, with more data, more awareness of ourselves and those we are interacting with, perhaps such interactions and dynamics can proceed more skillfully.

While in MCTB1 I tried to leave out a lot of details relating to my own life and practice, it turns out that this caused a few significant problems. First, to fill in the gaps relating to details that I failed to provide, many people projected all sorts of strange notions from their own fantasies onto what they imagined my life and practice had been. In other words, many people made up all sorts of seemingly random stuff to justify whatever reaction they had to the book, positive or negative, and some of this craziness got spread around on the web. Second, I realized that by not telling parts of my story, I failed to remember and then to present techniques, concepts, and other details that were extremely helpful to me as I began trying to learn these practices. As it turns out, I seem to remember certain details of practice and useful tips and techniques that were relevant to my early practice experience only when asked about or when reminiscing on those aspects of my life.

Thus, for those who are curious for whatever reason, here is a very condensed, edited, summarized, abridged version of the story as I best remember it. I realize that we all color the past and interpret it through experiences that happened later, as well as modify it due to our current agendas, and I have likely done that here to some degree, though I promise this is my best attempt to write something that is as truthful as it can possibly be. I have been careful to protect the privacy of people whose journeys overlapped or intersected with mine in some way, but whom I presume wouldn’t want their personal stories readily accessible to anyone and everyone. I have therefore tried to focus on the practical details that might help you, the reader, do something useful with this material. That concern for privacy does mean that I have had to edit out some good material that might have had explanatory or pragmatic value, but hopefully the ethics of respecting privacy are worth that.

My apologies to anyone who thinks this is just me blowing my own horn. I hope it doesn’t come off that way, as that is not at all my intent. That said, there are things that I have done about which I rejoice, and if anything in the way I present this annoys you, I am sincerely sorry. All right, enough disclaimers: so begins the tale …

Part VI: My Spiritual Quest   |  43. The Early Years