One of the key elements at the heart of “guru dynamics” is that of projection. Psychological projection can be seen as an egoic defense mechanism in which we resist and deny our unconscious qualities or impulses – positive or negative – and instead attribute them to others.
Projection happens in everyday encounters, but gets amplified when there is a power differential – e.g. as soon as a role or a hierarchy is created. We can’t get away from it, and will never get away from, it as long as we have any kind of ‘helping others awaken’ role.
For example, in the Trillium Awakening (TA) path, it begins immediately when we become TA mentors, amplifies when we become TA interning teachers, swells when we become TA full teachers, and crescendos when we become members of the TA Elders Council or TA Visionary Council.
Spiritual students will naturally and unconsciously project both positive and negative qualities onto their spiritual teacher. It’s also very likely that the teacher is unconsciously projecting onto their students. These projections are basically unowned aspects of self – our brilliance, strength, gifts, and our darker impulses such as our vulnerabilities, rage or grief, or desire for power and control.
Projection is not inherently a bad thing! In fact, not only is it natural, there’s a way in which it is even necessary – students must be able to project for as long as they need to, as long as they are unable to own/reclaim those particular, disowned parts of themselves. Thus, a good spiritual teacher recognizes both positive and negative projections from their students and helps hold these projections while gently, gradually allowing the student consciously integrate them.
For example, a student might think I’m overly amazing because they are not yet able to see and own how amazing they themselves are. Over time, they’ll not only see that I’m just human, but they’ll come to appreciate their own strengths and gifts. Thus, I’m basically holding the student’s positive projection for them until they have a more accurate, positive sense of themselves. However, if I identify with the student’s positive projection, then I’m at great risk of harming them because I’ll blame and reject the student when I inevitably fall off the pedestal.
A related dynamic is at play when students project negatively onto a me – I still need to hold that negative attribute until the student can integrate it in themselves. Conversely, I also need to be conscious of, and get help with, the ways that I am projecting (positively or negatively) onto my students.
What is critical, then, is how the teacher/ role-holder handles the inevitable projections. This is what makes the difference between causing harm or stimulating healthy growth.
Two powerful documentaries illuminate both the healing and the destructive consequences of how a spiritual teacher handled projection.
Movie #1: Kumare
— Kumare knew he was not a guru (he never identified as one)
— the positive projection of ‘guru’ happened anyway, w/o any ‘credentials’
— he was aware of, and uncomfortable with, the positive projections and was sensitive to students’ trust and vulnerability
— he realized his job was to give back the projected power and to help people find their own ‘inner guru’
— the students who were able to reclaim their projections from him received significant benefit
Movie #2: Holy Hell
— Michel Rostand may have known at some very sub-conscious level that he was not a guru, but he consciously absolutely identified as one
— the positive projections fed into Rostand’s deep narcissism
— he claimed all the power and fostered dependency and submission
— he abused student’s trust and vulnerability
— students who didn’t reclaim their projections were severely traumatized
This brings us to consider what our respective responsibilities are in the spiritual teacher — spiritual student exchange. See my post on this topic – Teacher vs Student Responsibilities.