Don’t Drink the Kool-aide: How to Avoid the Projection Trap
- By Chuan Zhi
- Sep 22
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In 1912 the French philosopher Lucien Lévy-Brühl published a collection of works that gave us a new model with which to view the relationship between self and other. He offered new insights into many of the problems that are encountered by people in relationships of all kinds. Carl Jung further expanded his models, weaving them into an even more complex yet cohesive view of the human psyche.
While these models cannot be considered scientific in the technical sense of the term[Note 1], their value should not be summarily rejected. As with all models, we don’t seek to identify some “ultimate truth” with them – their purpose is merely to help us to see a bigger picture based on interconnections where previously we saw only the disconnected pieces. To this end, any model stands on its own two feet, its value a function only of our ability to utilize it to our advantage, to gain some benefit.
Lévy-Brühl’s conceptions of the Participation Mystique and Projection are especially valuable to Zen/Chan practitioners seeking to avoid some of the problems that can appear when joining a group or aligning oneself with a teacher. I present these two interconnected concepts in hopes that they will help Chan initiates avoid some common problems that, unfortunately, arise all too often with student-teacher relationships.
One of the first things we learn about Chan is that we must allow our ego, our personal sense of “self” to be subsumed by a larger “Self”, our Buddha Nature, True Self, or, as some prefer, God. Until we’ve actually gone through the process, this idea seems meaningless if not nonsense … How can I have another self? How can there be a True Self and a Not True Self? Well, if we want to find out, we do the practice.[Note 2] Many who seriously want to dive into it join a group of some kind. But while group training can be highly beneficial, it can also lead to problems for students if the Zen instructor lacks sufficient spiritual maturity. The nature of these problems we can attribute to the Participation Mystique and the action that arises from it: Projection.
The Participation Mystique refers to our natural tendency to create an emotional relationship, an attachment, with an object, idea, person or group. Carl Jung explained it as “…a peculiar kind of psychological connection with objects, and consists in the fact that the subject cannot clearly distinguish himself from the object but is bound to it by a direct relationship which amounts to partial identity.” [Note 3]
As an example of the Participation Mystique, consider how many times we, as children, got a new toy and “fell in love” with it. We would carry it around with us everywhere, maybe even sleep with it. Our sense of identity became enmeshed in the object. We do this as adults too. We buy a new car and have an intense emotional connection with it. Or it may also be a house, a bicycle, or a pair of shoes. Stronger sentiments may arise for a girlfriend, boyfriend, wife or husband. In all of these cases, our psyche naturally [Note 4] creates a strong bond, one in which the self identifies with the object as if part of itself. With time, these attachments vanish, but while they are there, problems can arise when we proceed to project this intertwined identity out into the world.
Projection happens all the time and we’re all susceptible to it. We meet a famous actor or musician or political figure and cower in awe of them, or perhaps we ask for their autograph that we might take a part of them home with us. We shake the hand of a celebrity and are quick to replay the exciting event by telling all our friends about it. Of course these are harmless projections and don’t generally cause any kind of harm to anyone. But other projections aren’t so harmless and, in the world of Zen, it’s those others that we need to pay special attention to: those that involve projection upon a “Zen teacher”.
The Jonestown Massacre offers a well-known example of when projection upon a religious figurehead can go very wrong, ending in mass suicide and murder. It’s a poignant reminder of the value of developing an awareness of projection. With awareness we can improve the odds that we’ll avoid similar situations ourselves. [Note 5]
For those who missed this prime-time news event of November 1978, it entailed the massacre of 909 member congregants of the Peoples Temple: approximately 30% of those were children and adolescents. The massacre was masterminded by its leader, Jim Jones, who had, for years, encouraged his congregants to revere him as a supremely spiritual and righteous person. Which they did. Imbued with such power, he one day asked his followers to drink Kool-aid laced with cyanide after first giving it to their children to drink. They did so. Today “drinking the Kool-aide” has become a commonly used phrase referring to the danger we submit ourselves to when we become a believer in an ideology or person without questioning what we’re doing, or, more generally, when we accept anything blindly without considering it critically.
While Zen and Projection are on opposite sides of a spectrum, we often go through a projection phase on our way to Zen. When we are under the spell of the participation mystique, where we are indelibly and blindly glued to another person, we embrace that person emotionally and psychologically as if they were an inextricable part of us. Since it’s an unconscious process, once it happens we are apt to follow their guidance blindly. Zen training methods have us retracting our attachments to everything, most importantly, perhaps, to other people. Zen is about detachment. An often quoted Chan teaching comes from one of our most highly respected and oft-referenced Chan forefathers, Lin Chi;
Of course we don’t literally kill anybody; that is just metaphor. What we do is sever our attachments to them. The term “kill” emphasizes the degree to which those attachments must be severed, and the effort it takes to get there.
It’s easy to imagine that we are immune to projection, but it’s an integral part of human nature, perhaps evolving in response to our survival needs to work together in groups. It serves to help us select a leader, a partner, a president .... Although it has been an active player in the continuation of our species, it doesn’t always serve a supporting role. It can also backfire on us.
Consider marriage. How many people have fallen in love, gotten married, and then after a few years gotten divorced? The first phase of the relationship is the projection phase – i.e., we fall madly in love. During this phase, we see the other person not as he or she is, but as we desire to see him/her. That is, we project an ideal form[Note 6] upon the person. When we discover some months or years later that this other person does not live up to our ideals, we “fall out of love”, often tragically. We start seeing faults everywhere and wonder why we married the person in the first place. “How could I have so misled myself!” we muse to ourselves.
The Zen world, one would think, would be devoid of problems with projection, considering we’re not supposed to project since it’s a form of attachment, and, of course, the Buddha’s Third Noble Truth tells us that that’s the reason for suffering in the first place. The reality is all too different from this. [Note 7] Unfortunately, many “Zen groups” operate in much the same fashion that Jim Jones did with his Peoples Temple congregation: their leaders encourage congregants to eulogize them, rewarding those who do by putting them in higher social positions within the group and punishing those who don’t through a variety of subtle (and not so subtle) means. These group leaders, lacking in spiritual maturity (often calling themselves roshis, masters, gurus, etc.), have become inflated, seeing themselves as lofty, or even saintly beings, and unconsciously they project this altered self-image back upon their congregants, reinforcing the participation mystique that serves to support their status in their community.[Note 8] Often, the majority of their congregants, like those at Jonestown, become so caught up in it that they are unable to see the forest for the trees. Those who think for themselves, becoming aware of what’s happening, may escape unharmed, but many may not be so lucky. The last 20 or 30 years are replete with examples of such crimes to Zen, Buddhism, and humanity, from sexual abuse to confiscation of large sums of donated money for personal gain. Most often, these things get swept under the carpet, but it’s important to learn from these situations so that we can try to avoid them in the future for ourselves. [Note 9]
Falling into the mode of projection is extraordinarily easy to do, and it happens when we are not mindful. It would be nice to think that once we check ourselves in to a Zen group that we’re safe, but we are only as safe as the spiritual maturity of its leader allows us to be. We must rely on ourselves to be attentive to the nature of projection and furthermore, we must watch for signs that we are projecting if we are to arrest the process before it gains a lock on us. And we must never assume that a Zen teacher is superior to us, or to others, in any way. We can respect and honor a person for their kindness, knowledge, skills, etc., but when we put a person on a pedestal, we are projecting.
When we fall into a projection trap we will eventually come out of it – all such attachments eventually lose their hold on us. But when it happens, the pain and suffering that accompanies it can often be extreme. The process of detachment is the most difficult activity one can undertake. When we do it, it feels like we’re losing a part of ourselves, which in fact we are: but it turns out that it’s only the illusory part of ourselves.
The path of Zen is the path of ever increasing awareness, attention, and understanding. We can only get there by scrutinizing our lives in every aspect, in tortuous detail. Those who do Zen understand this. For those who would like to get there, know that there is nothing more complicated than this about “doing Zen”.
1. The scientific method requires that we are able to objectively negate a null hypothesis with a high degree of statistical certainty which doesn’t apply outside the domain of the scientific paradigm. There are many different ways to gain insight, and the scientific method offers only one of many.
2. There are many zen training practices: all entail devloping concentration and awareness through methods that focus ond "open" the mind. Breathing exercizes (pranayama), gong-an (koan) study, hua-tou practice, yoga, martial arts are all examples of "methods" that can be utilized in Zen training.
3. Carl Jung, Psychological Types, Collected Works, Volume 6, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Paragraph 781.
4. i.e., because it is an unconscious process, it happens to us, we don’t make it happen.
5. "Just as we tend to assume that the world is as we see it, we naïvely suppose that people are as we imagine them to be. . . . All the contents of our unconscious are constantly being projected into our surroundings, and it is only by recognizing certain properties of the objects as projections or imagos that we are able to distinguish them from the real properties of the objects. . . . Cum grano salis, we always see our own unavowed mistakes in our opponent. Excellent examples of this are to be found in all personal quarrels. Unless we are possessed of an unusual degree of self-awareness we shall never see through our projections but must always succumb to them, because the mind in its natural state presupposes the existence of such projections. It is the natural and given thing for unconscious contents to be projected." -- Jung, C. (1948) General aspects of dream psychology. In: Dreams. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, par. 507.
6. The concept of an ideal form dates back to ancient Greece but its exact origins are unknown. The most ancient of Greek writings include these concepts. The idea is that for everything we interact with in our lives--forms of all kinds, be they dogs, men, women, lamps, trees, toads--we form an image of them in their ideal form, i.e., the perfect dog, the perfect man, the perfect woman, the perfect lamp, etc. Plato suggested that actual things we encounter in the world we “see” not as they are, but as “shadows” of their ideal forms. That is, we unconsciously compare everything with the idealized form it takes in our mind and, in doing so, what is real becomes obscured. The idea of projection is a natural extension of this ancient concept of ideal forms, in that when our mind creates an idealized image of, say, a specific person; it will naturally consider that person to be superior to all others (who do not receive the projection).
7. For those not connected with Zen teacher scandals in the media, here is a recent one: Genpo Merzel Roshi recently resigned from White Plum Asanga acknowledging sexual “misconduct” toward his students. The sangha president, Roshi Gerry Shishin Wick, released this statement: “The White Plum Asanga Board of Directors has accepted the resignation of Genpo Merzel from White Plum Asanga membership as well as an Elder of the White Plum. This resignation is a result of his recent disclosures regarding sexual misconduct with several of his students.”
A commentary on Dangerous Harvests magazine regarding Genpo Merzel:
“His money making Big Mind process has been torn apart by so many in the blogosphere that there is too many to count. Now he joins the ranks of Zen teachers who have fallen prey to power, and lust, and in the process, have harmed many people in his trust. Some outsiders are already thinking that this whole teacher/student relationship thing in Zen is a disaster, and should be abandoned. Some insiders, or former insiders, feel the same, including the guy who offered the post.”
About.com’s commentator Barbara O’Brian adds additional commentary:
“What always (to me) made Big Mind sound hinky is that it is marketed as enlightenment on speed dial. By using Genpo's techniques, the pitch said, you could save yourself years of sitting zazen before realizing satori. Big Mind is taught mostly through seminars that charge a hefty enrollment fee, beginning at $150 [...] I understand some people have paid as much as $50,00 for quickie enlightenment. … As usual when a sex scandal hits the news, this one has been accompanied by a whole series of other revelations. A former insider in Genpo's organization stated on Facebook that Genpo's community ‘has given him (Genpo) enough money to have three houses, two new cars and a Harley Davidson, not to mention a couple hundred thou a year salary and all expenses.’ Yikes!”
Other popular Zen teachers have tread similar paths to Genpo according to the commentaries we read online by students, and according to books written about them. Stuart Lachs, a Zen practitioner for over 40 years, has studied personally with some of them and written several excellent articles describing details of many of these effronteries to Zen Buddhism, and the harms that have been done to Zen students. His website offers a collection of materials: lachs.inter-link.com .
8. "It frequently happens that the object offers a hook to the projection, and even lures it out. This is generally the case when the object himself (or herself) is not conscious of the quality in question: in that way it works directly upon the unconscious of the projicient. For all projections provoke counter-projections when the object is unconscious of the quality projected upon it by the subject." -- Jung, C. (1948) General aspects of dream psychology. In: Dreams. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, par. 507, par. 519.
9. For additional reading:
Articles by Stuart Lachs
Zen at War by Brian Daizen Victoria, copyright 2006 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
The Sacred Canopy by Peter L. Berger, copyright 1967 by Random House, Inc.
Shoes Outside the Door, Desire, Devotion and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center, by Michael Downing, Copyright 2001 by Counterpoint, a member of the Perseus Books Group.