Buddhist teacher and psychoanalyst Pilar Jennings looks at the psychological pitfalls teachers and students can fall into.
If you’ve ever attended a talk by a renowned Buddhist teacher, such as the Dalai Lama, Pema Chödrön, or Thich Nhat Hanh, you probably remember the large crowds. They were there because they sensed there was something they needed from a teacher.
As a longtime Buddhist and a psychoanalyst, I’d like to suggest that some part of us knows we need mentors. We need people to find the good in us if we’ve lost touch with it, to help us navigate life with all its tumult and difficulties, and to offer us inspiration. Mentors can help us cope with loss and our chronic, nagging wish for love. Sometimes, it seems like too much to go it alone.
In my effort to understand these needs, I’ve found that what most defines us as people is that we’re relational. We start our journey housed in the body of another, and the moment we’re born we seek her out again. We do everything possible to re-form this needed tie—to feel that we’re close and will stay that way.
This longing for closeness keeps us alive. It helps us form attachments that can provide relative safety and potential feelings of love. We depend on the person we’re attached to in order to help us meet our needs.
Something similar happens with spiritual mentors. People drawn to Buddhist practice seek out teachers to figure out how our minds work, to understand why we so often struggle with ourselves and others, and to discover a reliable roadmap toward increased well-being.
When our mentors are “good enough,” to borrow a wonderfully useful phrase from the British psychiatrist D. W. Winnicott, we reap enormous benefits. If they walk the talk and are relatively mature, self-reflective, and boundaried, such mentors can usher in extraordinary healing, both psychological and spiritual.
Spiritual teachers reawaken our trust that we can be treated with kindness. They orient us toward meaning and purpose. They challenge painful beliefs about ourselves through their steady compassion and patient curiosity. They affirm that happiness is not an elusive fantasy, but something that can be woven into every aspect of life.
Unfortunately, close relationships of any kind—especially when there’s a power differential—come with pitfalls. Why? Because they stir potent fantasies and longing. This is human, natural, and not inherently problematic. It’s the nature of the psyche to bring in our entire history of relationship, with all its complexities and unmet needs that are ripe for activation, when meaningful people come into our life.
Fortunately, when there’s some awareness of these fantasies and why they’re active in certain relationships, there’s less danger of acting them out. This is true for both teachers and students.
For teachers, there may be longing to feel loved and respected unconditionally, and to feel empowered by this love in ways that affirm their desirability. For students, there will likely be longing to feel powerfully seen by the teacher—to feel special and uniquely cared for.
When these feelings and fantasies are conscious, both teacher and student will be able to reflect on them, even respect them, as indications of unworked-through experiences of relationship. This will protect the integrity of the relationship between teacher and student and usher in fuller psychological and spiritual well-being.
When the fantasies are unconscious, however, the stage is set for them to be acted out. When this happens, as we’ve seen in myriad Buddhist communities, people can get badly hurt and exploited, and the fruits of their spiritual efforts may be lost.
At a time when many people in the West are drawn to the extraordinary healing arts of the Buddhist path, we need to make ameliorative changes in the teacher/student relationship. As someone who began practicing Buddhism in childhood and has been a clinician throughout my adulthood, this is what I propose.
Most importantly, spiritual mentors need and deserve more psychological education and support. They play a challenging role, one that likely mobilizes what analysts call transference—the projected feelings, longings, and beliefs of their students. In response to this transference, teachers may feel what is called “countertransference,” including all sorts of fantasies, feelings of awakened desire, or resentment for being chronically needed.
It’s in part for this reason that psychoanalysts are required to be in their own analytic treatment. This helps them bring more awareness to their own healing efforts and to sort through with greater clarity what’s happening between them and a client.
As teachers navigate the psychological funhouse of relationship, it may be tempting to imagine that Buddhist spirituality has all the methods and tools needed to address human complexity. But any teacher who reflects on their relationship to themselves and their students will see that this is not the case. The psyche is real, as is our neurobiology, and both components of the human condition give rise to ornate psychological suffering that needs methods of care not offered in the Buddhist tradition. (I say this with deepest respect for the healing insights and methods offered in Buddhism that are not found in Western psychology.)
It won’t take much for this kind of psychological education to be effective. Brief intensive training addressing key insights offered in developmental and psychoanalytic perspectives will go a long way toward helping teachers recognize their own unworked-through needs and traumas, and their students’. Insight into our childhood experiences is one of the gifts of a Western psychological perspective that can support Buddhist practitioners as memories and early associations arise in their meditation practice.
If Buddhist communities and institutions consult with seasoned clinicians who are well versed in the buddhadharma, both teachers and students will find therapists who do not pathologize their spiritual pursuits and will address psychological suffering with compassion and respect. Such clinicians can protect teachers and students when they are in relationships worth cultivating and repairing, and help set limits when they are not.
This would be a big leap forward, but it’s not enough. I would also like to see Buddhist communities actively encourage reflection on the nature of the teacher/student relationship. In the sutras, students are given guidelines for how to find teachers. These guidelines could be expanded to offer teachers and students another way to consider how they wish to interact, what they would like to explore, and how to implement more respectful mutuality.
“Good enough” families tend to have more transparency and less unnecessary mystery. They try to address suffering when it’s experienced, make gestures of repair, seek help when needed, and understand each person’s particular vantage point. As a result, their relationships are more sustainable and enjoyable. Healthy spiritual communities can make similar efforts that protect and bolster the blessings of a “good enough” teacher/student relationship.
If these changes were implemented, my sense is that Buddhist teachings would have an even greater healing impact in the West. We might all agree that if ever there was a time when healing was needed, it is now.