Fantasy Projections and Teachers

July 12, 2023

If we can live with the humanness of our teachers, we can live with our own humanness. A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

I have a topic. I would love you can talk about obstacles that we may encounter in relation to our attachment to our teacher. As an example, distraction comes to mind. Distraction and, and fantasy.

Distraction and fantasy. We're doing spiritual practice because we're distracted in a state of fantasy. [laughs] And that pertains not just to our relationship to teachers, but our relationship to everything.

When we are lost in fantasizing about the past—mourning the past, reworking the past, feeling bad about the past—that's being in past fantasy.

When we're thinking about the future—what could be, what we want, what we're planning, how everything's going to work out or be not worked out—that's a state of future fantasy.

And when we're thinking about things that are going on in the present and going over them and over them in our minds and reworking them, staging fantasy conversations with people in our heads, right? Or even things that seem perfectly normal to be thinking about other people that are really just projections and fantasies. That's being in a state of present fantasy.

Most of the time, we're in some kind of state of what would be called 'fantasy' in this tradition. The purpose of practice is to divest us of that and destroy that distraction. In fact, the whole practice—and this would be a very Dzogchen way of putting it, but I heard my Dzogchen teacher say this quite a bit—that our whole practice could be 'remain undistracted from presence'.

We're practicing so that we can remain undistracted from presence. Presence is not the present. The present is just some fantasy moment in some fantasy we call linear time.

Presence is the livingness of everything, the intelligence of everything, the pervasive virtue and wisdom that is the fundament of existence. First, we have to recognize that through our practice, that that even exists. Because, of course, we're trained to not even know that, or not even think about that, or to suspect it, especially here in the West.

But we can have a very definite and incontrovertible recognition of presence or living presence or Buddha-nature or Shiva-nature or Christ consciousness or Krishna consciousness or the natural state or the base state or the Self. All of those things are pointing toward the same fundament of existence—what is existence itself, what is everything arising out of.

And it is this livingness, or, I call 'living presence', and it is self-aware and it has vast intelligence and beneficence, and many, many other qualities we can get in touch with. And we can begin to train—'to train' is another way my Dzogchen teacher would put it—train to remain undistracted from the natural state. That we're training to do this. That's what our practice is.

We first have to recognize, and then we have to train to remain undistracted from the thing that we've recognized. And eventually, that just becomes effortless. We have to put effort in for a long time, but eventually it becomes effortless. We lose the habit of distraction over time.

So we're not creating anything new. We're destroying the habit of being distracted from how things actually are.

Now, along the way, what happens is that we gain more clarity about how things are. So there are many stories in these kinds of direct realization traditions about the trajectory of students gaining clarity about their teachers. And this is just very schematic, but these stories usually have the same narrative.

At first, the student idealizes their teacher, and has all kinds of projections onto their teacher about how their teacher is. Whatever that student thinks would be the perfect teacher, they project onto their living teacher.

And of course, in your distracted state, in your karmically inflected state, in the state of your limitations, whatever you project onto anybody else, not just a teacher, is going to be a mirror of your own limitations.

So in these stories, the student is a good student, usually, a diligent student, practicing a lot. But yet they're, like all of us, still in a state of distraction and fantasy projection. If we weren't, we wouldn't need to do any spiritual practice. So there's nothing wrong with it. It's just the condition we're in.

And then they go along and they go along and they go along. And then at some point, the teacher decides it's time to do something pretty extreme to strip the student of their fantasy projection.

And so sometimes that will involve the teacher doing something that this teacher knows would put a monkey wrench in the student's fantasy projection. Like, if the student thinks the teacher never drinks, the teacher gets drunk and shows up at a teaching or something like that, right?

Then there's this moment in the story where the student then thinks that they've been betrayed by the teacher. Basically all that's happened is the fantasy projections of the student's have been revealed to just be fantasy projections.

So there's a moment in all of these stories where the student feels betrayed or they've been fooled or the— that teacher's is no good! You know? They're not following the rules.

And then there's another moment where the teacher does something else, which is like a kind of transmission, or confronting the student in a nonverbal way, usually, where the student recognizes, suddenly everything that they've been doing all along, all the projection that they've been engaging in, all the fantasy.

And they see the real nature of things, the real nature of the teacher, and the real nature of their relationship with the teacher for the first time. And they feel that whatever the teacher did, like get drunk or whatever it was, was the greatest gift the teacher ever gave them. [laughs]

This is, like, a very stereotypical kind of story in these traditions. Every student comes into a relationship with the teacher if they should be so lucky as to have one, with tendencies and projections and stories and expectations and all this kind of thing.

And the idea is that in the midst of that, you would slowly be developing clear seeing. You would slowly be developing a real living connection with the teacher that would allow you to sense something essential beyond words and also to be able to see clearly what's going on in a more ordinary sense.

A lot of the trouble that students get into with teachers who are abusive is they don't see the abuse. So students get involved with abusive teachers, and the abuse was there all along, and the signs of the abuse were there all along. But because the student was so engaged in projection and fantasy and didn't have clear seeing, they don't see it right away.

And then later on, they develop more clear seeing because they're usually good practitioners, right? And then they start to see how the teacher is and they feel betrayed. Like, the teacher suddenly did something different, but that isn't what happened, right? The teacher was that way all along.

The whole practice is develop clear seeing and develop a real living connection with the teacher that allows you to experience something about the condition the teacher is in in a more esoteric level, and then discovering that same capacity in yourself. This is what the process is.

So everybody has their own flavor of projection, their own flavor of distraction. And this gets to the six realms, right?

Some of us are more outward-facing with our distraction and our projection, and some students might be getting angry at teachers a lot. This is also a well-known thing. Spending a lot of time coming up with catalogs of the teacher's faults and projecting a lot of their feeling of insufficiency onto the teacher.

Or they might have a crush on the teacher. That happens, too. It's kind of funny because—and I've written about this a couple of times—there's obviously a good cause for people communicating to each other in public about abusive teachers who seduce students.

But students are trying to seduce teachers all the time, either by trying to be the best student and be recognized as the best student. That's a seduction. You know, students who come with 'I have a really, really interesting dream' or 'a really interesting thing happened in my practice' and there's a certain way that students come and you know you're being seduced and manipulated, right? They want approval.

And there's other students who have literal crushes on teachers and relate to things in a more seductive way. And there's every flavor of emotion you could possibly have that students are bringing their realm fixations to the teacher. And that's actually what should be happening.

And then if you've got some clarity, if you've got some inkling of what the relationship is actually for. So the relationship is not for the confirmation of your karma. It's not for the validation of how you showed up. Right? It's not to give you what you want. Because a lot of what you want is just what your karmas want.

The relationship with the teacher is not for any of those things. And at— even in the midst of distraction and fantasy, if you have some clarity, some small clarity about what the relationship is actually for, and some willingness, and some sense of responsibility to your own spiritual development, responsibility to yourself, more sober responsibility, then you will let the teacher embark on the process of dismantling your fantasies.

And that can happen in many, many, many, many different ways. I mean, infinite ways. And that's the play of teacher and student. The play is multifaceted, but a huge part of it is the play of dismantling of your fixations and karmic habit patterns.

And along the way, of course, everybody also experiences resistance to that. And that's just part of it. But there has to be—for it to work, for it to be workable—there has to be some clarity about what this is really about. There has to be some willingness to be challenged, to not get what you want from the teacher, to understand the, sort of, secret language between teachers and students.

A language, really a grammar, of how students and teachers work together, that really is no holds barred for the very, very, very most understanding students, students who really understand what it's about. There are absolutely no limits to what it could look like.

And that's just, to me, the utter fun of it, really. That you're in this relationship where so much creative play can happen for the purpose of freeing people from their limitations.

So you're experiencing fantasy and distraction, and that's completely normal. I mean, if that weren't happening, there would be no need for me. [laughs]

But on the other hand, you just want to try to recognize that as clearly as possible and really try to feel for something that's more fresh, and something that you can sense is more heading in the right direction. Something from me, something between us. You want to really try to sense that.

And you can sense that in many, many different circumstances. And the only prerequisite is that you want to do it. You have to want to do that. You have to want to be dismantled. Even as you're fighting and kicking and screaming, you have to want it. If you don't really want it, then there's nothing to work with.

Not in this kind of tradition. There's other kinds of traditions. So I'm really only narrowly speaking about direct realization traditions, where the relationship between the teacher and the student is—for a certain segment of students who are sort of down for it—is really the main practice.

And I just find it uniquely fascinating. It's like an infinite Rubik's Cube or something. It can be in so many different configurations and you never get to the end of it.

Our expectations of teachers can really make us miss opportunities. That can really happen, too. We have very, very strong expectations of how teachers should be. It can really cause us to miss opportunities.

So think about what your expectations are, where they come from. Are they even germane or appropriate for this situation? Maybe they come from childhood. Maybe they come from just culture at large, what you think spiritual teachers are supposed to be like.

When people who are not from the cultures that these traditions come from encounter these traditions, there's an intense amount of fantasy. A lot of it just based on longing, wanting to be saved. So people take the Christian... You know, we're in a Christian culture, whether we're Christian or not, it's like they have Christian molecules in the air that we're breathing. [laughs] And everybody wants to be saved, even if we weren't brought up in that kind of tradition.

And so we come to this tradition where being saved is just not on offer. [laughs] It's just not happening. But we really want that. People get into a lot of trouble because they project a kind of savior quality or savior power onto even the most obviously unaccomplished people.

We need to relate to our teachers with more clear-eyed— and be able to live with their humanness. Because if we can live with the humanness of our teachers, we can live with our own humanness. That's part of the magic of it, part of the alchemy of it, right?

I was just reading this quote again from Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, just a delightful teacher! And he's not alive anymore, but he said this thing that has become quite famous in small circles.

But he said, when you see the real nature of things, even though the projections of samsara are still happening in your mind, you can always have a smile on your face because you see how things actually are.

It's just a fascinating statement because what he's saying—and this is a revered, Tibetan reincarnate, one of the most beloved teachers of the 20th century—he said, karmas are still manifesting somehow. I can sense the play of karma is still manifesting, but even so, I see the real nature of things.

But what he's basically saying is, I'm still human and yet I'm also enlightened in some way. And if we could have that experience, all of us within ourselves, how relaxed could we be? We could be so relaxed about ourselves. And this is really the alchemy that happens. Right?

But if we deny the teacher their humanity because we want a savior, and we have this idea of what a savior looks like, then we're basically saying, I reject my own humanity, too. I reject my own karmic configuration.

There's another teacher, Dudjom Rinpoche, whose teachings I also really love. The photos of him are extraordinary. You just look into his face and it's so full of pathos, so full of emotion and almost poignancy and yearning and a little bit of sadness and...

His face is just endlessly fascinating to me. And I just love that he showed up that way. There's not, like, a speck of putting on airs. You just feel like he's just letting everything hang out, whatever it is. You know? This is really the job of teachers in this tradition.

My job, and the job of other teachers, which they don't always accept, but— is to really let everything hang out. The special and the ordinary. Because then you can love that in yourselves. Like, if the teacher loves that in themselves, you can love that in yourselves.

Because none of us are ever going to be saved or totally enlightened, not according to this. We're never going to be perfect in an ordinary way. We have to learn that we're perfect even with our relative imperfections. That's what we have to learn.

And we can only learn that if we can see the teacher clearly with everything, everything that the teacher is bringing, not just the parts that fit our narrative of a savior or a saint or an enlightened person or whatever. We have to be able to love the whole thing so we can love ourselves.

The teachers who try to hide their foibles and shadows of samsara, as Dilgo Khyentse said, that are still manifesting in them. The teachers that try to hide those things have also kind of brought into the well-this-is-what-a-spiritual-person-has-to-look-like thing. And that really robs students, I think, of something very, very precious.

Because Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche— You know, if he's still seeing samskaric patterns arising in him, what hope is there for us? You know? [laughs] This is just the human condition. We're going to be somewhat enlightened. That's it! How are we going to deal with the whole package, then? Right? We have to learn to live with the mixed package.

I read the Autobiography of a Yogi the first time when I was in my 40s, and I got to this part near the end where somebody's saying that there are all these beings that had been human beings on earth who were practitioners who are now in other dimensions working out the infinite gradations of their remaining karma.

And I remember, like, just being like, someone just stabbed me with a stake. You know? What?! You know, this isn't going to be done? We're going to, like, have to go to other realms and work out infinite, infinite, infinite things of infinite karmas?

And, so, at first, I was very depressed when I read this. [laughs] And then it dawned on me that this was the greatest thing because it means we can all just relax. It's not not going to be done. We just do our best and just laugh at the rest, as Dilgo Khyentse says.

What are some real-time strategies for letting it all hang out?

[Laughs] Well, I have just been so fortunate in the kinds of insights that have been granted to me that just made that very possible for me. And also, you know, I just have a personality that I'm not very shy.

I know that people, though, a lot of people or most people have some degree of reticence or shyness or worry about what other people think of them, being afraid of being criticized, etc. You know, all those things are more common than not.

And so what I would advise for anyone who's experiencing that, how to let more things show, how to be more spontaneous and less premeditated in how you show up, especially for other people, is to take it one tiny, tiny little step at a time.

When you remember to deliberately experiment with not editing what you're about to say or not editing how you're about to do something, not preforming something before you embody it for other people. Try to do that in very small ways as many times as you possibly can remember to do that.

It is incredibly effortful to maintain yourself in a editorial stance when you're constantly editing everything that you say and do, or imagining it in your head before you do it, or worrying about everything and what other people are going to think of you, and imagining all the bad responses people are going to have to you. This is all intensely, intensely effortful.

But just being yourself and letting things out without all of that apparatus is intensely relaxing. It's like you stopped running on some incredibly high-tension treadmill. Your whole body, energy, mind actually wants to stop doing all these things.

If you take it one little step at a time, you're going to still feel fear, but you're just going to have to feel fear. None of this can be done without feeling some fear.

But you don't have to feel like you have to push yourself into it all at once. Even if you could do that, you don't really know how because all of these things that we do are like, hypertensive muscles that we have no experience relaxing. We need to take it a little bit at a time so we can remember a little bit at a time how to relax.

And what will happen is slowly, slowly, slowly, as you do this, you will gain slightly more confidence each time you do it, and you'll feel slightly more relaxed each time you do it. And before you're about to just, like, let it hang out, tension will build up, and then you just do whatever, say whatever. And then there's relaxation.

And every time you experience that relaxation, you are retraining your system, and it becomes easier as you go along. If you keep doing it little by little by little, not biting off too much, but, again, still agreeing to be afraid, to a certain degree, then as you go along, you're going to build up more and more of a tendency toward relaxing, and you're going to want to relax more.

And you'll get to a kind of tipping point where it becomes absolutely impossible to go back to the way you were living before. You'll reach that tipping point. But you have to take these sort of little risks over and over and over again.

And the other thing that happens as you do this is you start to develop more confidence in yourself, more self-knowledge, more confidence in just how you are. And that also helps the momentum toward relaxation.

But basically, you've built up a tremendous amount of momentum in this tension. You know, it's held in, like all this kinetic energy, and you have to relearn how to relax it and let that energy start flowing in a different direction a little bit at a time.

People, when they want to make a change, often get overwhelmed because you think you have to do it in some giant gesture, some grand event has to happen where suddenly all of your tensions are going to go away in one giant moment.

But that is unreal. That really can't happen. It really only can happen incrementally. But you can be more conscious of it and take small risks over and over and over again.


Satsang with Shambhavi is a weekly podcast about spirituality, love, death, devotion and waking up while living in a messy world.