Transference and Countertransference, or How I Came to Love My Teacher

Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 4, Part 18 of 19 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

CTT: But let’s throw in one more factor here that’s important, especially since so many of us are going to become clinicians, and that’s projection and transference reactions. Every one of us has had the experience of relating to God-like teachers, and that was our parents. When we were infants and little children, our parents, by comparison, were so incredibly knowledgeable and powerful, and could give love or take it away. Freud was quite right in pointing out that this creates very deep, very primitive kinds of attitudes toward powerful figures like that and, without buying all of psychoanalysis, these things happen in later life, so you get transference reactions. Okay?

So these primitive feelings that you had toward your father or mother get transferred to some other living human being who, of course, isn’t your father or mother, and isn’t magical. But some parts of you regard them that way. And I’ve seen a lot of this happen in various spiritual teaching situations. When it first begins to happen, it’s wonderful for the person who experiences it.

You fall in love with your guru. They are so wonderful and what they do works. You have experiences. When you were a little kid and you hurt yourself, you ran to mommy and she kissed the booboo and made it better! It works! The guru kisses the (psychological) booboo and makes it better, and that reinforces and further stimulates this deep transference kind of reaction in you.

The trouble is that this devotion and appreciation and energy toward following the guru is based on a fundamental error. This person is not your father or mother. You are not a little child. Whether they have any magic abilities or not is a wide open question, but you deep down feel that way. And, of course, you rationalize it all as this is their spiritual ability coming through.

The problem with building on this foundation is that transferences can flip from positive to negative if the right circumstances come along. And all of a sudden, this wonderful emissary from God, who loved you and taught you everything you know, is a God damn fucking charlatan who’s been exploiting you the whole time! And you lose everything! All the effort you put in, all the skills you learned, you don’t want to have anything to do with it because it’s gone to a negative transference. All the things you hated about your parents suddenly become projected on to the relationship, smothering the positive projections.

As far as I can tell, most spiritual teachers have very little awareness of the phenomena of transference (or counter-transference, which swells up the ego of the spiritual teacher). And so they have a lot of problems with these sorts of things. They don’t know how to handle them.

One of the early groups I was in was led by Claudio Naranjo, when he was on a very spiritual “high.” And no, I don’t think he was “enlightened,” but he was in touch with something really important. He was also a psychiatrist, and he made his students write essays on their transference relationships with him every once in awhile.

Student: Wow.

CTT: A very unusual kind of approach, but which some people, who I think had big transferences, thought “This is our opportunity to tell him how much we know he really is God.”


Scary. Scary.

Let me just finish one other item in this story. Maybe you’ve read about it in the book already; maybe you haven’t. When I ran a mindfulness training group along Gurdjieff lines for about a year and a half, two years, I tried to keep people aware of this transference dimension because I didn’t want that kind of psychological distortion confusing the skills people were learning to be more present.

But transference started happening, and I could see it happening. Somebody would ask me a question and I’d say “I don’t know the answer to that.” And they’d get this look in their eye that this was a very profound answer on my part.


And it wasn’t a profound answer. I just didn’t know! So I tried to explain that to them, you know? “Don’t act like that’s profound. I just don’t know.”


And the look would get deeper.


He’s very humble, as well as profound!


I saw this starting to go out of control, so I ended the group, because I didn’t want that kind of crap happening. I didn’t know how to take people through that in a sensible sort of way. But it’s something to always watch out for in any spiritual path that somebody’s on. Transference and countertransference.

I don’t know how popular Freud is among clinicians nowadays, but that part of it you should be familiar with because it’s a very real thing in spiritual circles. And especially because it’s not understood at all, by and large. That makes it all the more powerful. And it’s one of these things that, if you understand it, you have a chance to do something about it.

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