Ghosts

We search for patterns, often without knowing that we are doing so, filling in what we can’t be sure of with what we can already grasp. And so it is, as I have been writing in the last few days, that we so often relate to other people from our memories of them, or we project onto them aspects of ourselves to fill in the unknown we encounter in them.

But that’s not the end of it. We also easily and unconsciously relate to other people as if they were key figures from other systems and constellations of which we have been a part, in a phenomenon known as transference.

So you join a new organisation, and find that there’s some way in your new boss reminds you of your father. And even before you know it, you’re filling in the blanks as if that’s just who he is. When he doesn’t reply to your email, it feels like all the times you were ignored in your own family. When he’s short tempered or curt with you it reminds you of the times you were judged, and you imagine his reasons for judging you are the same as those you remember from home. You find yourself seeking his praise, repeating the ways you learned to get noticed as a child. And you feel warm and supported perhaps exactly when you get the kind of recognition you longed for when growing up, but feel unseen when he’s recognising you in other ways. And all the while, you have no idea this is going on.

And he, simultaneously, is responding to all the subtle cues that come from the transference you are experiencing. Perhaps you now remind him of his own child, and he finds himself treating you in this way. He looks to praise you the way he praised her. He is frustrated with you for what frustrated him about her. He is reassured when you respond in ways that feel familiar, and confused and exasperated when you don’t fit the pattern that years of habit have taught him.

Before you know it, you have planted the ghosts of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, teachers and enemies and lovers among your colleagues. And each one of them, in turn, has recruited you into a role you may know nothing about.

And all of you are in a dance that everyone is dancing, even though nobody can see the steps the others are following. On and on, through and through, transferred memories of families and systems that are not of this place, the weave from which your conversations and relationships, your delights and your many troubles, are spun.

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Missing

Aside from our projections (the aspects of ourselves we see in others when they are actually present in ourselves) we also miss the truth about other people when we hold on too tightly to our memories of them.

We so readily fill in the gaps in our experience with that we think we already know. But our stories are necessarily incomplete, and our memories are in many ways unreliable. And, added to that, people keep on changing, so that our certainty about others quickly becomes a way to have them be familiar to us rather than a way of meeting them. Often even a well-worn difficulty feels more inviting than the uncertainty and openness of not knowing.

And it may even be the case that the child, the friend, or the partner you said goodbye to this morning is not the same as the person who is walking back in through the door this evening.

Responding to this is not at all easy. We’d rather hang on to our stories than take the risk of being surprised, with all that could bring. It takes courage to set all that aside. But learning to see people more accurately (and with more kindness) might be our best source of hope for healing our relationships and finding the goodness in ourselves and others that we so urgently need.

With thanks to Jason for our recent conversation that brought this into view.

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On undoing our projections

Our projections onto others cause us such difficulty because, in effect, we are asking other people to take care of what we can only take care of ourselves. And we can only take care of it ourselves if we’re prepared to look, with some attention and persistence, at what it is that we are projecting – often a part of us that’s out of view.

My big work on this topic over many years has been with anger. For so long unable to see and feel how angry I felt about so much, I’d project anger onto others in at least two ways that I can determine.

The first – being sure that other people were angry with me when it was me that was angry with the world and with myself. Perhaps you can imagine how confusing it is for other people when I’m reacting to them as if they’re already furious with me – when I withdraw, or become sullen, or snap back in response to something inside me rather than in response to them. As is the way of such things I’d often quite successfully bring about what I most wanted to avoid, as other people became angry as a result of my way of orienting towards them.

The second – trying to shut down anger in others when it did arise, because it put me so directly in contact with my own fury, the very thing I was most afraid of and most wanted to deny. The result, a stifling way of controlling and dampening others’ responses towards me, of not letting them be whoever and however they needed to be.

And, most fascinating about this, how invisible both of these processes were for me for a very long time. I knew I was afraid of other people’s anger, and I suppose I had some sense of the ways I’d try to avoid it or reduce it, but I had no idea that I was seeing it everywhere because it was present, so very present, right here in me.

Perhaps if you look you’ll start to see similar processes at play in your own life. Maybe it won’t be anger but fear. Or if not fear, perhaps it’s shame that you’re projecting onto others while trying strenuously to avoid it yourself. And once you start to look, perhaps you’ll see how projection shapes relationships at home, with your colleagues, across your organisation and in many other situations in which people relate to one another (isn’t that everywhere?)

We’ve taken up our projections for good reason. They have doubtless, along the way, had a necessary protective effect. But learning to still ourselves enough that we can see them, and coming to observe ourselves accurately enough that we can drop them, liberates a new kind of truthfulness and a much needed-freedom into our relationships and interactions with everyone around us.

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We see what we project

So much of our difficulty with relationships comes because we’re projecting onto others what we won’t see in ourselves.

So you get angry and frustrated with a colleague because she’s tentative and hesitant, without seeing that it’s a cause of anger (rather than compassion or curiosity) precisely because you’re angry at all the ways that you are tentative and hesitant.

Or you get furious with your partner for leaving the kitchen table in a mess, not so much because of the mess but because your inner critic is eating into you for all the ways you struggle to keep things neat and in line.

Or you fall in love with another’s creativity and spontaneity, all the while because he reflects back to you all your own creativity and spontaneity with which you’ve lost touch.

Or you feel afraid of an entire group of people because they remind you of what you’re afraid about in yourself.

Our projections – if they illuminate anything about other people at all – leave so much of their true beauty and complexity shrouded in darkness, so that we’re often relating to what we project rather than to who they are.

None of this is so unusual. But it can be a huge source of difficulty and suffering for us. Because behind our projections is another human being, different from us, confounding, surprising, and worthy of both curiosity and wonder. Behind all our projections is another who we are sure we know, but perhaps barely know at all. And behind all our projections are aspects of ourselves – gifts and suffering – that we’re sure are out there in the world, but are in fact right here if we’ll only turn towards them and look.

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Naming it

When you’re caught up in a something that’s pulling you away from life, distracting you, narrowing your horizons, or having you act in ways that don’t seem to match your intentions, you could try to give the something a name.

Is it anger, shame, resentment? Frustration, boredom, cynicism? Fear? Resignation? Your inner critic?

Names have power.

Moods, and our own inner critic, are often transparent to us. They recede into the background of our lives – shaping the world without us knowing, but shaping the world nevertheless.

But a phenomenon, once named accurately, starts to come forward from the background. It becomes possible to point at it and to have some kind of handle on it. The somethingyou’re in takes a step from having you to being had by you, just as in the naming of daemons in the old myths – once named the daemon’s mysterious power begins to dissolve.

So, when you’re in some kind of difficulty, you could try to see what name fits best.

Anger? Fear? Frustration? Shame?

If you pay attention you’ll know when you’re on to something, particularly if you pay attention to the felt sense you’re experiencing in your body. An accurate name, something that’s true enough, will feel different, almost as if the phenomenon you’re naming turns towards you in recognition, becomes willing at last to make itself known.

And once named, first to yourself, perhaps later to others, see what new purchase you have on your situation. You may find that the invisible grip of the invisible something that has enveloped you will start to soften so that something new – a possibility or course of action – comes into view.

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Back to the garden

The myth of the Garden of Eden is so brilliant and powerful because it expresses our sense of having profoundly lost something essential and elemental from our lives, something we need.

We long to return to the peace and beauty of the garden. It’s a place we feel we once knew but from which we’ve been exiled, and we imagine there’s something we can do to get back so that everything can be alright once again. When we return we will at last stop feeling so separate from the world, so alienated from it. It will be a place where we’re fully welcomed and loved, where we don’t need to strive any more, where the resources of the world will effortlessly meet our needs, and where we no longer need to feel afraid or ashamed. And in this way the myth of the garden promises to fill an enormous hole that we don’t otherwise know how to address. 

Perhaps we’ll meet the right person, a friend or lover or saviour whose acceptance and care for us will be our return (maybe it’s this sense that draws us towards particular people in our lives in the first place). Or perhaps it will come through fame, a big enough bank balance, or through attaining a certain status or prominence in our work or our wider culture. We can become convinced we’ll be readmitted to the garden by following a spiritual path, by being kind, or by cultivating depth, integrity, knowledge, power, courage, or equanimity. Maybe receiving the right email in our inbox will do it (is this why we check so often?).

We wonder if we haven’t found our way back because we didn’t try hard enough. So we keep on with the same strategies, despairing that they don’t seem to work out.

Our suffering is magnified by our finding that nothing and no-one we encounter is able to return us as we’d hoped. We are terrified that it’s our own failing, and if not that then the unfairness of the world towards us, that keeps us away.

The story rings true because we all know Adam and Eve’s loss at loss first-hand. We began our lives in the wondrous and cushioned embrace of the womb, deeply connected to the being of another inside whose body we floated, totally and unquestioningly cared for. And now we find ourselves thrown into the messy physical world where nothing ever quite goes our way, where we don’t feel held, where we feel anguish as well as joy, and where we have to take responsibility for ourselves. The pain of leaving the garden is nothing less than the pain of living in the world with the memory of a once simpler time when we experienced only our oneness with all of it.

The Eden story’s brilliance is not only that it so perfectly describes our deep longing, but that it also calls into question our wish to return. Adam and Eve are children – barely aware of themselves, barely able to know anything, unable to distinguish between this and that, between actions that bring wholeness to the world and actions that destroy. They can remain in the garden only as long as this remains the case. Once they eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, once they develop the capacity to engage with the world in its fullness of both dark and light, once they grow up, the spell of the garden is broken and they have to face the world as it is. A return to the garden would not be the idyll we imagine because it would mean giving up the capacities and faculties that make us adults, most notably the capacity to discern, and the capacity to choose.

So, how should we live in the light of this? One path, for sure, is the path of nihilism, the certainty that all is lost and that, faced with the prospect that nothing ever works out apart from death, nothing is of meaning. The other path, which seems much more life giving to me, is one in which we simultaneously turn towards that of the garden which is already present in the world (beauty, love, compassion, the wonders of nature are just a few) and towards doing what we can to reduce the suffering that we know cannot be avoided completely. This second path also means learning to live with the hole-like feeling of incompleteness – perhaps to be human is always in some way to feel incomplete – and yet continuing to bring as much of our capacity for goodness and integrity as we can. The second path means giving up the idyllic myth of Eden for the much more grown up task of living with dignity and compassion with the world as it is and us as we are. And in order to do this, we have to give up on our fantasy of returning to the garden, a fantasy that adds difficulty to difficulty and so readily has us hold back what we could bring.

And, as well as this, there is another possibility, which is to look deeper into life than we are yet accustomed to doing. The separateness of our bodies so convinces us we are separate from everything and from one another – and it’s the very compelling feeling of distance that has us long so urgently to return. The anguish of this, and the longing of it, is very familiar to me as I write this today. But from another perspective, which I glimpse now and then, we all arise from a wholeness from which we have never been apart – call it the universe, ‘the one’, emptiness, God, life itself – there are many names. In those moments when we get to see that we’re all together an expression of something which has always been our home, perhaps we get to relax our desperation a little, and this in turn allows us to contribute without trying all the time to grasp too tightly something that is already here.

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Where conflicts go

Whenever we bring our commitments, longing, plans and requests to others there’s the possibility of some kind of conflict. We could avoid this only if world were made up of billions of clones, designed to sweetly anticipate and accommodate our every need and wish. But because people are different from us in uncountable ways, we’re always called on to listen, to make ourselves vulnerable, to hear what we’re not expecting to hear and to feel what we’re not expecting to feel, if we’re going to navigate our difference with dignity and for the good of everyone.

Too often, perhaps because it feels safer, we try to find our way around conflict without doing any of this. We imagine we can force our way through (wishing for those clones, again) and in this way spare ourselves from encountering any real resistance, and from having to be changed by the encounter. Or we accommodate, keeping our own wishes, desires and requests quiet, silently and resentfully bending ourselves to fit in. Both of these positions diminish everyone involved. Both appear to keep us safe by keeping us out of contact with one another. And both, I know, are approaches I’ve fallen into countless times.

I’m reminded, though, that avoiding the heat of difference between us doesn’t make the conflict go away. It only changes its form – into silence, or resentment, or insincerity; or shifts its location – from the public realm to our inner lives, where our avoidance of outer conflict leaves us in ongoing conflict with ourselves.

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