Transference and Regression with the Spiritual Teacher

Description of the Phenomena in Classical Psychoanalysis

Transference and regression are phenomena that occur in most ordinary human relationships, but in classical Freudian psychoanalysis, as described by Menninger in Theory of Psychoanalytic Technique, they are encouraged and employed as working tools. The client lies on a couch with the analyst sitting behind unseen, somewhat like a parent remaining invisible to a baby lying in a carriage. The client opens him or herself up to the analyst, but the analyst remains for the most part unresponsive and silent. The client feels frustrated and irrationally transfers or projects onto the "blank slate" analyst the image of a parent or some other troublesome figure from childhood who did not pay enough attention to him or her. Wishing for help, but not receiving it, the client regresses to childish patterns.

The regression typically goes through stages. The client has obediently followed the analyst's instructions to reveal his or her innermost thoughts and feelings. Yet, the client has seemingly failed to please the analyst and so has not received any reward for being a "good" patient. The object that the client feels denied regresses from help, to attention, to acknowledgement, to approval, to love, to affection. The feeling regresses from wanting, to craving, to absolutely requiring, to demanding. The frustration at not receiving the desired object similarly regresses to anger, then rage.

The client's rage may boil over into the equivalent of an infantile temper tantrum. The analyst obviously does not love him or her. The client may wish to find the analyst's weaknesses and hurt the person. He or she may transfer not merely the image of a negligent parent onto the analyst, but also the image of an unresponsive partner. The client may flirt with the analyst, try to seduce the person, and if rejected, cause a scandal by claiming that the analyst was trying to seduce her or him. Transference and regression may be multifaceted.

Optimally, the client eventually reaches a crisis point and, as with the breaking of a fever, releases the infantile rage. The client sees that expressing his or her pain and anger does not lead to being branded a "bad" child and to being rejected or abandoned. The analyst continues to act with the same stability and calmness that has characterized the entire relationship. Slowly, the client learns to have reasonable expectations and to recognize different ways in which others may feel comfortable to fulfill them. The client becomes a mature adult.

The Phenomena in Disciple-Mentor Relationships

According to post-Freudian usage, regression to a younger stage in life may not only be degenerative; it may also be an improvement. Someone may regress to a juvenile, immature mode of behavior, as Freud described it, or to an open-minded, innocent childlike manner of relating to the world. Restorative regression ideally happens in a healthy disciple-mentor relationship in which the example of the teacher inspires a seeker to drop rigid modes of thinking and behaving that cause only suffering. Transference and degenerative regression, on the other hand, commonly occur in an unhealthy disciple-mentor relationship, especially when a mentor fails to respond in the ways a disciple would like. Let us examine the phenomena.

A disciple may obediently follow his or her mentor's teachings and try to please the person with offerings, service, and practice. Yet, the mentor remains unmoved – in the Kadam Geshe Sharawa's words, like a tiger looking at grass. The mentor may be busy with many other students, may travel frequently, and may have little or no time for personal attention to each disciple. A disciple with tendencies toward overdependence, submission, or rebellion may be psychologically unable to cope with these facts.

If we find ourselves in such situations, we may easily regress in a degenerative manner. We may transfer and project onto the teacher the image of an inattentive parent or unresponsive lover. We want, crave, and may even demand acknowledgement, attention, help, love, praise, and affection. Frustrated, we may feel anger and rage, but may feel guilty about it. Because of low self-esteem, some of us dare not express our anger for fear of being branded and abandoned as "bad" disciples. Worse, we may be terrified that our feelings constitute "a breach of guru-devotion" and will lead to burning in hell, as many Buddhist texts describe. Our struggles to suppress frustration and anger, and our feelings of guilt, in fact create living hells for us. In Buddhist terms, a hell is not a place of punishment for disobedience, but an experience of torment created by one's own confused, destructive thoughts and actions.

Resolution of Problems Arising from Transference and Degenerative Regression

The Fifth Dalai Lama's instructions on guru-meditation may be helpful in resolving problems that arise from transference and degenerative regression with a spiritual mentor. If we are caught in the hellish mental state that the syndrome creates, we need first to realize that not only is it all right to drop our fear and guilt about what we might feel about our teachers, but it is essential – although, of course, not easy to do. Fear and guilt about our feelings do not help anything. Once we are able to relax our emotional barriers by using, for example, some of the Buddhist meditation methods for quieting the mind, we then need to let the disturbing feelings arise and try to identify them. We may then ask ourselves, "Where are these feelings coming from? What am I really trying to say?" The situation affords an excellent opportunity to learn more about ourselves.

If we recognize the phenomena of transference and degenerative regression, we next need to bring to consciousness the faults we see in our mentors. We then need to distinguish between the facts of their actual conduct and the projected images from unsatisfying parents or disappointing lovers. Acknowledging the frustration that we feel, we need to see that our mentors' lack of response comes from causes and conditions, such as having many responsibilities. Moreover, the lack of attention or acknowledgement that we receive is not a rejection and does not mean that we are bad disciples. The guilt we may feel neither confirms nor proves our inherent inadequacy.

Delving to the root of our angry frustration and eliminating the confusion that is causing it – in other words, meditating on voidness and dependent arising – bring longer lasting results than trying to purge ourselves of rage by venting it. Venting suppressed rage may simply reinforce a habit of anger. In most cases, however, voidness meditation on angry frustration requires repetition and deepening before it starts to lessen the intensity and frequency of the problem recurring. Results follow nonlinearly and miracle cures hardly ever happen.

Further Steps in the Resolution Process, Suggested by Contextual Therapy

A further cause contributing to transference and degenerative regression may be culturally specific. From a Western point of view, the universe is just and fair, whether because God is its creator and ruler or because of the rule of legislated law. Thus, if we have followed our mentors' instructions and practiced conscientiously, we feel that we have earned the right for acknowledgement and praise, and the entitlement to receive them. If our mentors do not give what we feel we have rightly earned, we believe they are acting unfairly. This may cause us to feel frustrated, hurt, and even enraged. We may regress to the feelings of children who scream that it is unfair when denied the reward of staying up late after they have finished all their homework.

According to the approach of contextual therapy, we are entitled to feel bad when our mentors seemingly treat us unfairly, although we are not entitled to revenge. To overcome the pain, we need also to acknowledge our entitlement to be happy about the sincere practices that we have done. Even if no one else acknowledges our right to feel happy, self-acknowledgement gives the affirmation and strength that may enable us to understand and to forgive the mentors' limitations. It also allows us to acknowledge the respect and appreciation rightfully due to our mentors from their good qualities and kindness. Moreover, the reassurance and calmness gained from self-acknowledgement may give us the clarity and openness of mind to see that our mentors may in fact be acknowledging our efforts in previously unrecognized ways.

Pleasing a Spiritual Mentor

The issue of gaining acknowledgement from a spiritual mentor is especially baffling for Westerners because the classical texts on the disciple-mentor relationship repeatedly stress pleasing one's mentor. The ritual texts typically contain such prayers as: "May I please my guru. May all the Buddhas be pleased with me." The problem is how to know that the mentor is pleased. Various cultures condition people to express their pleasure in different ways. When Western disciples lack familiarity with Tibetan customs, they may be unable to recognize how a traditional Tibetan mentor would express pleasure with a disciple.

Low self-esteem is not an issue for most Tibetans, whereas overconfidence and arrogance typically are problems. Therefore, a traditional Tibetan mentor would avoid complimenting a disciple to his or her face since it might increase the person's inordinate feelings of self-worth. A mentor would normally praise a disciple only to others, when the disciple was elsewhere. Moreover, Tibetans lack the Western notion that unless a sentiment is verbalized, it is not actually real. Most Tibetan couples, for example, would neither say "I love you" to each other, nor require an "I love you" to feel secure or loved. Tibetans express their love through taking care of each other. Thus, a Tibetan mentor would acknowledge a disciple's efforts and show pleasure only indirectly, for example by taking the person seriously and giving further teachings.

Moreover, Tibetans do not feel the need to be with each other constantly, or even frequently, to sustain a close relationship. In traditional Tibet, people often made long caravan journeys and were away from loved ones for several years at a time. Therefore, spending little time with a disciple is normal and not a sign of displeasure, rejection, or abandonment.

A major way in which Tibetans show that they care about someone is to point out the person's faults and to give a light scolding. They may also warn the person against possible mistakes and, in general, give the person a hard time so that he or she may learn and grow. If someone does not really care about another person, he or she would not go to such bother. This pattern of behavior typifies not only traditional Tibetan mentors, but also traditional Tibetan fathers.

Most Western disciples, however, totally misinterpret the traditional Tibetan manner of taking someone seriously and showing care and concern. Instead of feeling that they have pleased their Tibetan mentors, they feel they have displeased or disappointed them. In many cases, they may project unpleasant experiences with their parents onto situations with their mentors. Consequently, they may regress and respond in adolescent ways. For example, they may see stern Tibetan paternal advice as judgmental Western fatherly disapproval. They may take it as harsh criticism and as a threat to their integrity, individuality, and independence. They may see warnings against mistakes as signs that their mentors neither trust nor respect them. Instead of helping the disciples to mature, the Tibetan manner may simply exacerbate their low self-esteem. Consequently, they may either rebel or feel even worse about themselves. They are convinced that their mentors are unkind.

Thus, developing a firm conviction in a mentor's good qualities and appreciation for his or her kindness sometimes requires an additional step. Disciples may need to recognize ways of acknowledging and showing pleasure with someone that differ from what they know from their cultures and which they expect to be universal. Success in this step enables them, in Boszormenyi-Nagy's words, "to overcome feeling shortchanged or cheated and to accept payment in a different currency for the acknowledgement to which they are rightly entitled."

Guru-meditation, then, as supplemented with the contextual therapy approach, would proceed through the following steps. First, as with the step of rejoicing during the seven-part invocation, we need to acknowledge and feel good about our practices ourselves. Then, if our mentors have not been showing us the types of attention or signs of pleasure with our practices that we would like, we need to admit this consciously. Complaining about the fact, however, and feeling that our mentors need to adopt our ways will only depress or annoy us, rather than uplift us. After all, our expectations were unrealistic. Therefore, we need next to realize that the cultural or personal limitations our mentors may possess have arisen from a variety of causes, but do not constitute inherent flaws in the mentors' character. Thus, we focus on the voidness of our mentors' shortcomings as existing inherently.

Next, if our mentors are traditional Tibetans, we need to recall typical Tibetan ways of acknowledging a disciple's efforts and showing pleasure. Then, bringing to mind our mentors' conduct toward us, we may be better able to recognize the good qualities and kindness for what they are. When we are able to identify correctly the ways in which our mentors acknowledge disciples and show pleasure – in other words, when we learn to understand our mentors' cultural language – we may then focus with firm conviction on these clear signs that they show. We may then truly appreciate our mentors' qualities and kindness.

Deeper Resolution through Voidness Meditation

The contextual therapy approach may be helpful in dealing with the problem of wishing to please one's mentor and being unable to recognize unfamiliar ways of showing acknowledgement and pleasure. Nevertheless, even if we are able to accept our Tibetan mentors' cultural and personal customs, we may still crave emotional strokes for our good practices. If we cannot gain them in familiar forms from our Tibetan mentors, we may feel that perhaps if we please our Western teachers, we will gain praise and attention from them. Such an attitude inevitably leads to frustration and suffering. We need to see that underlying our wish for acknowledgment and our wish to please may be an unconscious obsession with gaining acceptance and approval. Without delving deeper and applying voidness meditation, this more serious problem may remain unresolved.

As stated earlier, two specifically Western assumptions may contribute to the problem: the assumption that the universe is fair and the unconscious belief that we are guilty of original sin. From the Buddhist viewpoint, these two unquestioned assumptions are based on confusion about how the universe and we exist. Buddhism does not share the Western belief that the universe is just or fair. Nor does it assert that the universe is unfair or that things happen at random. Everything occurs as the result of an extremely complex network of interrelated causes and circumstances, with neither an impartial source of just laws nor an impartial judge to administer them fairly. Moreover, the first noble truth Buddha taught is that life contains suffering. We may follow our mentor's advice and, for a complex of reasons, never receive acknowledgement for it. If we believe that the universe must be fair and so we expect, crave, or demand acknowledgement or signs of pleasure, we only create more suffering.

The wish for acknowledgement often masks a wish for approval and acceptance, which often masks low self-esteem, based on unconscious belief in being inherently sinful. Painful emotional experiences often confirm and reinforce this belief. Moreover, receiving acknowledgement in the hope that it will establish our worth means establishing our worth as independently existent individuals. This obsession derives from confusion about how we exist. Acknowledgement, whether by others or by ourselves, may make us temporarily feel better. However, the feeling of happiness soon disappears unless accompanied by an understanding of reality.

Ultimately, we need to realize that although we exist as individuals, there is no solid "me" inside who is inherently inadequate and who needs to receive affirmation or to please others to feel worthy or real. Although ultimately acknowledgement is irrelevant, nevertheless it is important that we not feel that we were stupid for needing it. Acknowledgement is necessary while we are still bound within the confines of culturally specific thought and belief. Without that acknowledgement, breaking out of those confines may be too difficult for most people to manage.

If acknowledgement does not come in recognizable forms from our mentors, parents, lovers, or friends, self-acknowledgement is a definite help. However, we need to be careful in its application. As we go beyond cultural limitations, stopping the self-acknowledgement prematurely may still leave us with low self-esteem. Moreover, feeling stupid about what we previously felt merely reinforces a low self-opinion. With a deep understanding of voidness, however, then even forgiving ourselves for having acted foolishly becomes superfluous.

In healthy relationships with spiritual mentors, disciples follow a teacher's instructions, practice diligently, and even help the mentor financially and physically without any need or wish for acknowledgement or praise. Disciples do all this to benefit themselves and others, and not for simply pats on the head. Pleasing our mentors, then, is not for receiving self-affirmation through an acknowledgment, a thank-you, or any sign of their pleasure. Pleasing our mentors is for gaining greater ability in helping others.


In psychoanalysis, analysts may unconsciously respond to their clients' transference and degenerative regression with countertransference. For example, suppose a client unconsciously transfers an image of a busy father and regresses to demanding attention. In response, the analyst may unconsciously countertransfer an image of a demanding parent and become defensive or annoyed. Note that both transference and countertransference, as Freud defined them, are unconscious processes. Other common results of countertransference are unconsciously to become protective, manipulative, flattered, disappointed, or romantically interested. Part of the training to become an analyst is to notice any signs of unconscious countertransference and, by bringing them to conscious awareness, to refrain from acting upon them.

If students or disciples transfer images of parents or lovers onto spiritual teachers and regress to juvenile or otherwise inappropriate behavioral patterns, fully qualified mentors would respond without countertransference. Even if the disciples make unreasonable demands or declare romantic love, the mentors would let their words pass through them without inflating the situations into concrete and independently existent incidents. Maintaining calmness, equanimity, and warm, caring concern, well-qualified mentors would act like gentle mirrors. A mirror allows people to gain true glimpses of themselves, but without actually assuming the features of anyone before it.

Normally, qualified mentors would not confront disciples with their projections, nor scold them for thinking or acting inappropriately. Tibetan mentors, for example, usually scold disciples only for improper actions with others: because of humility, mentors cannot demand proper treatment for themselves. Rather, through consistently impeccable behavior, mentors would provide circumstances conducive for disciples to gain awareness and insight into the situation at hand. Eventually, disciples would come to see their projected fantasies. Unlike psychoanalysts, then, spiritual mentors do not encourage the transference and degenerative regression process. However, like analysts, mentors deal with the process wisely and compassionately if it occurs.

Responding Maturely to Countertransference

Most spiritual mentors are not enlightened beings, and consequently they still have at least the remnants of disturbing habits. Thus, spiritual mentors may still experience unconscious countertransference. If this occurs, the mentors would follow the same procedures that analysts do. They would try to become aware of the feelings of countertransference and refrain from acting upon them. Some spiritual teachers, however, are deficient in certain good qualities and might act out the impulses that arise from unconscious countertransference. For example, in response to idol-worship, flattery, or flirting on the part of students, spiritual teachers might respond in romantically forward ways.

If countertransference is directed at us, we need to check carefully the causes of the problem. During the first phase of sutra-level guru-meditation, we need to examine objectively whether a teacher's fault is partially in response to our own transference and regression or is coming solely from other sources. If we discover that our own behavior is partially responsible, we need to work on curtailing that behavior. If the teacher still does not stop his or her inappropriate or even abusive actions, we may follow Ashvaghosha's advice. We would politely explain to the teacher, in private, that the inappropriate behavior is making us uncomfortable and we would ask the teacher kindly to explain why he or she is acting that way. Alternatively, we may follow the Kalachakra teachings and keep a respectful distance.

Embarrassing a teacher in public, so that he or she loses face, would only be a last resort to stop extremely abusive cases. If we think to resort to such drastic measures, we need to be especially clear that our motive is purely to spare others and the teacher from further pain. If the action to disgrace a teacher is a personal vendetta undertaken out of revenge, it may cause more harm than good. It may bring great confusion to the mentor's other disciples who have benefited greatly from his or her teachings. It may leave them in states of spiritual despair and leave us in bitter, negative states of mind. Abusive behavior, whether or not fueled by countertransference, requires sensitive, wise, and compassionate means to bring it to an end.


A healthy relationship with a spiritual teacher requires a safe direction in life, a bodhichitta motivation, and, above all, a good understanding of voidness. Without these prerequisites, any attempt at building a relationship runs the danger of unbridled transference and degenerative regression.

A relationship with a spiritual mentor is not the same as one with a psychoanalyst. A mentor does not hold regular private sessions with the disciple to supervise the transference and regression process and to keep it under control. Therefore, if transference and degenerative regression occur, as they frequently do, sutra-level guru-meditation, supplemented by steps suggested by contextual therapy, may help to eliminate the problem.