We inevitably bring hopes and fears into a relationship with a teacher. Here I'm focusing on spiritual teachers, but the same dynamic can be in play with any teacher-student relationship, from your tennis coach to your yoga teacher. We project a lot onto our teachers, and many dynamics are at play beyond the conscious intention of the arrangement.
In psychology, we use the term transference to describe the way in which feelings from childhood strongly unconsciously shape adult relationships. Because of the perceived similarity of the power dynamic, this is especially true between students and teachers. It's important to emphasize that transference goes both ways; both student AND teacher will inevitably bring old relational hopes and fears to the relationship.
It is essential for students and teachers to have an awareness of the transferential dimensions of the relationship, and to be able to talk about it together when needed. Unaddressed problematic transference can lead to heartbreaking disruptions of whole communities, as we have seen too many times in the scandals that have plagued spiritual communities. I have also seen issues rooted in transference derail student-teacher relationships, and sour practitioners on the path of practice.
Many people come to spiritual communities looking to address emotional needs. We want family, love, understanding, guidance, support, and healing. And sometimes these can be found. But the dialog of the community, and between students and teachers, needs to take up the subject of these needs, or their influence will remain unspoken and intense.
On the student end, perhaps the two most common transferences to teachers are the tendency to idealize, and the tendency to rebel. I want to emphasize that I am not saying any of this is inherently bad or problematic, only that it's important to be aware of these levels of relationship, and to be able to speak about their impact
Most of us idealize spiritual teachers. We imagine them to be special people, maybe even enlightened, who have the answers we seek. When we are idealizing someone, we want to see them as all-good, and imagine that they can solve our problems or give us what we are missing.
On the one hand, there is something important about being able to "fall in love" with a practice and a teacher, and to find there a place to seek perfect love and perfect wisdom. I know I found it very relieving to be able to bring to my teacher all my longings and needs to rely on someone wise.
However, part of the relationship with a teacher also needs to include a process of de-idealization. The teacher is not perfect, and can't magically rescue anyone. Her humanity and imperfection need to be mutually acknowledged. When idealization is fostered in spiritual communities, difficulties inevitably arise, and the climate is ripe for drama, ethical violations and abuse.
The other common transference from students to teachers is that of skepticism, disappointment, and rebellion. Again, there is an important growthful and necessary dimension to this facet of the relationship. It's essential to be able to question our teachers and traditions, to compare the words of our teacher with our own experience. But, for people with childhood histories of betrayal or disappointment, rebellion can be reflexive and can erode or devalue the spiritual enterprise.
Idealization and rebellion are two sides of the same coin, and tend to follow each other around. A teacher who is initially strongly idealized is well-positioned for a steep tumble into disappointment when her inevitable humanity is revealed.
Teachers also bring their own unconscious needs and transferences to the relationship. Many teachers feed on the adoration of students, and don't want to question the idealizations of their students. When the student sees the teacher as perfect, the teacher may become seduced by the emotional gratification of that delusion. That teacher is then positioned to ignore her own shadow and difficulties, and to act out her needs at the expense of students.
Many traumatic ruptures in spiritual communities are caused by unacknowledged and unconscious transference dynamics between students and teachers. One benefit of the contact between the dharma and Western psychology is a greater awareness of the role of transference in our communities, and more tools with which to address it. My experience is that the more we can openly discuss transferential issues in our sanghas, the more we can truly embody the wisdom of the Way.
Megan Rundel is the resident teacher at the Crimson Gate Meditation Community in Oakland, CA..