Transference and Counter-Transference

We pack the physical outline of the creature we see with all the ideas we already formed about him, and in the complete picture of him which we compose in our minds, those ideas have certainly the principal place. In the end they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice that these seem to be no more than a transparent envelope, so that each time we see the face or hear the voice it is our own ideas of him which we recognize and to which we listen.
     Marcel Proust1

When two people are working closely together in therapy or Zen practice, transference and counter-transference issues can, and often do, arise. As transference deepens and unfolds, a process which can take years, we come to relate to the other person through some lens of the past, and at the same time, we want to be perceived as being a certain way ourselves. This is a truly dynamic process that is encouraged in certain types of psychotherapy because when worked with skillfully, it can be a powerful way of gaining access to a range of core issues. In most teacher/student relationships these types of issues remain in the background, but when they do become activated, they have the potential of operating with even greater complexity and intensity than in a therapeutic context. Though easily hidden beneath the robes and roles of Zen practice, if these unconscious relationship-needs are strong, they can work in unfortunate ways that undermine the practice. Strong transference issues can tap into our oldest life-patterns. They often involve painful and contradictory feelings, and so are often difficult to address. They also touch into those places where we feel most vulnerable, and so when working on this level, trust in the process and the relationship is essential. However, it’s exactly because of these difficulties that transference feelings hold such potential. In traditional dharma training such issues are not infrequently considered to be out-of-bounds, a situation that opens the door to some difficult questions. Also, because relationships operate in such totally different ways in Asia, we can infer that transference and counter-transference issues in the West will also be very different.2

Transference feelings are not the same as feelings in the transference which have to do with the feelings that grow out of the current relationship – feelings that are uncolored by past needs and expectations. Of course, a teacher/student relationship can be comprised of shifting elements of both. The therapeutic alliance has to do with the feelings that embody the most affirming part of the undistorted relationship in the present – that place where student and teacher, client and therapist, truly join forces. Research concerning the efficacy of different types of psychotherapies has found that a strong therapeutic alliance is the single most relevant factor in predicting positive therapeutic outcome – a fact that has strong implications for Dharma training. Having a strong alliance isn’t about being friends, but rather that there exists a deep sense of working together with an uncompromising integrity. For students, transference issues usually evolve from a disempowered position, and so may become internalized through self-limiting or self-critical mindstates. The wish to please the teacher can be incredibly strong, and so we turn the blame on ourselves for any shortcomings, real or imagined, that may arise. Of course, this strong compliance may flip to its opposite twin, a complication that can be incredibly difficult to address.

In Dharma training it’s particularly easy to confuse ego-attrition with submission, and transference dynamics can impose invisible restrictions on what kinds of feelings are acceptable – and those that are not. Conversely, when someone becomes a teacher these same dynamics, (now called counter-transference), work themselves out from a position of authority, and so easily become externalized – they may only become activated when a person winds up in a position of power. Amos Bronson Alcott has written, “The true teacher defends his students against his own personal influences.” And Evans further commented on this, saying, “This is one of the great pedagogic principles, though not one teacher out of fifty has the dimmest awareness of it.” It can be hard to get a handle on these dynamics because the teacher’s ‘personal influence’ can be driven by their own unconscious, which by definition is outside of their awareness. When left unresolved, these unconscious forces not only affect teacher/student relationships, but inevitably seep into the teachings and community as well. I think it’s fair to say we all have unresolved issues, and for most teachers the impact is minimal. However, when transference difficulties run deep they can create tremendous harm.

There’s another aspect of these transference issues that also relates to practice. Though in the West we maintain what’s called an “independent” sense-of-self, a significant part of ‘who we are in the world’ is absorbed through relationships – and so has roots that stretch back to the earliest years of our lives. This means that when transference dynamics arise, they can bring up this early, implicit sense of self. While on a conscious level we may be focused on uprooting the sense of separation, other unconscious dynamics may be invested in working to repeat the ‘self-other’ relationship, thereby perpetuating the implicit sense of self that’s embedded there. Because intensive forms of dharma practice mobilize the unconscious, this can greatly intensify the whole transference process right in the midst of practice. Being able to work with these forces as they arise can be a singularly powerful way of addressing some of the deep characterological structures that not only subvert our efforts, but also play a significant role in maintaining this unconscious sense of self. Though these are delicate, and occasionally treacherous waters to enter, they do have significant potential.

  1. M. Proust, In Search of Lost Time, Remembrance of Things Past, vol. 1, Swann’s Way,quoted in I. Yalom, Love’s Executioner, and Other Tales of Psychotherapy (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), 182. []
  2. See the Cultural Differences section of this site. []