When #Spiritual #Teachers Respond with #Countertransference


I do not have good #karma with spiritual teachers. I must start with that understanding, as a #Buddhist who does believe in karma. However, that recognition does not absolve the #spiritual #teachers who have wronged me.

I have had several teachers relate to me from their own psychological troubles (reliving their family histories) or who believed and then acted inappropriately and unfairly on the basis of unsubstantiated and inaccurate lies or rumors about their students (including, but not limited to me). These teachers are human, yes, but they are established (sometimes self-established) in significant roles of power and authority. I expected better. I needed them to be better.

India Tibet Dalai Lama

Let’s be clear: the power in these types of relationships is held by the teachers (spiritual or otherwise), not the students. Just as: parents have the power and children do not; bosses hold power, employees do not (unless they unionize…); therapists wield power, patients do not (until they’re ready to terminate therapy); clergy retain power, parishioners do not.

While it may be true that we in the underling role “give” or cede that power to those “above” us, more typically, the power differential is institutionally installed and our acquiescence required. Or, these power dynamics are emotionally unavoidable and we all succumb. In any case, the power lies with the “upper” level role inhabitants, not the “lower.”

What happens, what has already happened, when “good” teachers go “bad”? Sexual impropriety, financial greed and theft, many types of favoritism and other painful outcomes for students in the spiritual community of these wrong-headed teachers have occurred when these teachers abused their power. Most abuses have become exposed and even well-documented, eventually, but many remained hidden by students and teachers alike for far too long, to everyone’s detriment.

I’m not writing today about the boldest, most overt abuses. I want to focus on my experiences of some of the more subtle kinds of problems between teachers and students, caused chiefly by the teachers. These #counter-transference dynamics have occurred all too often. The results? Destruction of the delicate balance that generated good will, trust and faith, ruining the community cohesion and causing unhealed and unforgivable schisms, to the point of permanent alienation between me and those teachers and the rest of their students.

Contributing factors: I am the same age or older than most of my spiritual teachers. I am a parent of an adult child, now, and a very strong personality in my own right. I am outgoing, intelligent, assertive, strong-minded and opinionated. I am courageous and able to speak up to “authority” in ways most adults are not. I am an experienced teacher and leader, myself. Many see me as competition or posing some kind of threat even when I do not present any such danger, having no motivation to be that way with them.

What types of responses do my traits evoke? My relationships with spiritual teachers and fellow students start positively enough. Early on, teacher and students begin to rely heavily on me for my organizational or leadership skills, my experience, my willingness to serve. They flatter, “support,” defer to me, giving me more and more responsibility, visibility, community roles.

Then, the negativity sets in, first among the students. I become the target of others’ envy or grudging admiration in public and private sniping. Peer conflicts like these I am used to but do not much like. Unpleasant but commonplace, I weather these minor storms. These skirmishes are not the difficulties. In fact, they are to be expected. Furthermore, we are taught to honor our sangha members and continue to ask forgiveness for our own minds’ foibles. We aim to see our ego-clinging as the source of any interpersonal difficulties: “Drive all blames into one.”

When teachers raise their voices at students in the Buddhist tradition, students are supposed to believe their teachers are expressing compassionate, enlightened wrath to help us with reducing pride and attachment. When teachers ignore us, we’re supposed to see our inner pique as a sign of our tenacious ego-clinging. When a teacher criticizes or praises a student, we’re supposed to see those actions as equal, not to care which is happening, not favor one experience over the other, cultivating the attitude of all experiences, all phenomena as “all one taste.”

Wrathful diety

Sometimes, those are the ways teachers operate. That fidelity to tradition can be excellent for students’ learning and spiritual growth. Students can thrive and develop our practices under these circumstances; students have been doing so for thousands of years.

Sometimes, unfortunately, teachers are just screwed up people with personal issues that they’re working out unconsciously, complete with seductions, anger and power plays, on us students. These behaviors are not acceptable.

The problems begin each time for me when my teachers succumb to counter-transference, unconsciously confusing me with their parents or other adults from their childhood, the people with whom they had/have troubled relationships and concomitant unresolved issues. Just my presence in their lives triggers old resentments, fears, angers and hostilities. They begin to publicly lash out, threaten and accuse me, yell at or blame me unfairly, or they ignore me completely.

All of their inner insecurities, cowardice and inadequacies arise, eventually to engulf them. They blame me.

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Because Buddhism focuses upon annihilation of the ego, techniques such as those listed above are often utilized for reducing one’s pride, loosening attachment to status or positions of power. We students are taught to continue to hold our teachers with “pure view,” seeing them as embodiments of enlightenment no matter what they say or do. We are supposed to strive to have unblemished and complete faith in our teachers, to trust them unflinchingly, regardless of their outward displays.

We are also, however, supposed to utilize discernment and good judgment. We are not asked to nor should we abdicate our own adult responsibility just because of the time-honored model of spirituality we subscribe to and believe in and how well it usually works. The model works; the people do not, always.

Even on the rare occasions when I’ve had the chance to discuss these interpersonal problems with the offending teachers and they understood what was happening, they chose not to attempt to work on this, not to enter therapy or try other methods to end the counter-transference. They chose, instead, to limit or even cut off contact with me.

Not your mother

These are not deployments of compassionate, enlightened wrath, but rather, the actions of confused individuals who are exhibiting mean-spirited, unkind, disrespectful mistreatment.

I know; I know: these decisions run in opposition to the very teachings they profess to offer. You don’t need to tell me that!

It is devastating to a community and each individual student suffers enormously when a teacher goes “off the rails,” as we’ve seen. Personally, I can attest to the pain, sorrow, disappointment and disgust I experience each time I witness or am the target of such failures in our teachers.

Counter-transference

Being the target of a teacher’s counter-transference robs the student of a chance to have an authentic relationship of any kind with that teacher because the student is not able to be seen clearly by that teacher. The filtering creates a haze of confusion that the teacher puts between him/her and that student which prevents the actual character, words or behaviors of that student from being given untainted attention or fair value.

The ones selected to be lovers of those teachers actually suffer just as much as those, like me, who are blamed and vilified. None of us is seen as ourselves. None of us has a “good” teacher to rely upon; that teacher has checked out.

I never had a chance with some teachers to be seen as me, to be treated fairly and respectfully. Instead, I was viewed with negativity, deemed to be “irritating” or “difficult,” cast out or forced to leave to escape this treatment.

Yes, by the time this happened for the fourth time, I conceded that this is my karma. However, I don’t have to like it. I am saddened, isolated, hurt and frustrated each time. It doesn’t get easier, just more familiar.

There is no easy or, sometimes, any solution, short of wishing/praying that the offending teacher will get some therapy and deal with their issues more thoroughly, hoping they will get their mother’s or father’s face off mine. So far, this has not been the trajectory of these ruined relationships: few apologies and no repairs have occurred. Broken has stayed broken.

Each time, I hope (but do not much believe) my/our karma will change. I am a skeptical optimist.

What are the odds that THIS teacher, THIS time, will deal with his/her stuff and become the teacher I need and want him/her to become?

Not so good. I wouldn’t bet on it. I’ll just keep practicing and put my faith in the teachings, not the teachers.

Let me know when you find a confident one. I’ll give him/her a try.

For more information: <a href="http://goo.gl/tKUCoz&quot; Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship Originally published as Berzin, Alexander. Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship. Ithaca, Snow Lion, 2000; Reprint: Wise Teacher, Wise Student: Tibetan Approaches to a Healthy Relationship. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2010title=”Relating to a Spiritual Teacher” target=”_blank”>http://goo.gl/tKUCoz

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