Victor Mansfield
Department of Physics and Astronomy
Colgate University
Hamilton, NY 13346

March 1996


Although the guru-disciple relationship is of the highest value for some, it is the source of great exploitation for others. The great difficulties with the relationship encourage some to advocate abolishing this ancient form of spiritual instruction. In contrast, I seek reform through understanding. I employ Carl Jung’s formulation of the transference in combination with the writings of Paul Brunton on the guru-disciple to analyze this relationship both psychologically and spiritually. Psychologically projection is stressed, while spiritually the telepathic connection between guru and disciple is discussed. Since our troubles with the relationship are largely psychological, I offer several suggestions for how to deal with potential difficulties. A deeper understanding can help us avoid some of the pitfalls exposed in the all too frequent scandals and move the relationship toward a more conscious and modern form-one reflecting the realities of the Western twentieth century psyche.

In general, emotional ties are very important to human beings. But they still contain projections, and it is essential to withdraw these projections in order to attain to oneself and to objectivity. Emotional relationships are relationships of desire, tainted by coercion and constraint; something is expected from the other person, and that makes him and ourselves unfree. Objective cognition lies hidden behind the attraction of the emotional relationship; it seems to be the central secret. Only through objective cognition is the real coniunctio possible.

C. G. Jung [1]

In the end he must free himself inwardly from all things and, finally, both from whatever teacher he has and from the quest itself. Then only can he stand alone within and one with God.

Paul Brunton [2]


I. Introduction

The guru-disciple relationship can be the source of the highest meaning or the worst exploitation. In the last couple of decades or so, reports of all types of painful exploitation and abuse of this relationship have filled Western media and the frequency of such exposés increases.[3] Thankfully, I have nothing to contribute to that mournful record. However, the frequency and seriousness of the problems with the guru-disciple relationship have encouraged some writers, such as John Wren-Lewis,[4] to advocate abolishing the system altogether. Instead, I hope my effort to understand the guru-disciple relationship, both spiritually and psychologically, will contribute toward a more modern and conscious form of the relationship, one less susceptible to the weaknesses arising in the recent exposés and scandals.

In the West, the analyst-analysand relation, although different in form and intent, has many similarities to the guru-disciple relationship. The psychoanalytic community has extensively studied the analyst-analysand relationship in terms of transference and counter transference and considers working through the transference an important element of the therapy. Although the Eastern traditions place great emphasis on the guru-disciple relationship, often making it the center of spiritual life, they have done little to analyze the nature and meaning of this pivotal relationship. Here I’ll bring a Jungian understanding of transference to bear upon the mysteries of the guru-disciple relationship as delineated by Paul Brunton,[5] whose writings on the subject are the most detailed known to me.

Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes guru yoga more than any other major tradition. Of course, they too have their share of scandals and difficulties with the relationship. These problems are largely responsible for the reform being stressed by the Dalai Lama,[6] who is offering a much modified interpretation of the relationship than that found in the major scriptural works such as their famous Lam Rim. Although my treatment of the guru-disciple relationship differs from the Dalai Lama’s, it is in harmony with it. My effort also differs in both approach and goals from previous work on this subject.[7] I focus on the relationship from the side of the disciple. I’ll not address the psychology of spiritual groups, how one should choose a guru, the extraordinary variety of possible guru-disciple relationships, nor what it means for the guru. Instead, I’ll focus tightly on both the psychological and spiritual reasons why the guru-disciple relationship is so special and powerful and why this uniqueness leads both to spiritual benefits and psychological problems. Since the difficulties we have with the relationship are from the psychological side I’ll stress the psychology and suggest several ways of dealing with these problems.

After completing his last major work, Mysterium Coniunctionis, Jung said about the transference relationship, “I believe I have not said everything about this subject here; there is a lot more to it still, but I have presented it as far as I was able.”[8] Given Jung’s feeling of incompleteness about the transference and the profundities and mysteries of the guru-disciple relationship, my attempt at tackling this difficult topic seems presumptuous at best. Nevertheless, armed with an appreciation of the difficulty of the task, a careful study of the literature, much personal experience with the late Anthony Damiani, Paul Brunton, the Dalai Lama, and the late Sri Sankaracharya of South India, extensive discussions with many people who have had or presently have a guru, personal experience with the psychoanalytic encounter, and my own writings on the transference,[9] I hope to shed a little light upon the guru-disciple relationship.


II. Psychological Preliminaries

Unlike Freud who considered projection a defense mechanism, Jung understood it as the natural attempt of the unconscious to make its contents known by displaying them in the outer world. Following Jung, I use projection as the process of unconsciously and affectively attributing qualities to persons or things that we fail to recognize as originating in ourselves. I am not using the term philosophically, in the sense that ultimately we project the entire world, as some traditions maintain. Instead, in psychological projection, we unconsciously and emotionally ascribe qualities to persons and things that they do not in truth have-or at least to the extent we believe they do. Usually the person provides a “hook” on which to hang our projection, but while projecting and ensnared in the affect, we can never be sure how much of the hook, the seen quality, is really where we see it, is truly in the object. These projections cloud our vision and bind us to the object in love-hate relationships. Such obscuring and compelling projections rob us of rationality, freedom, objectivity, and self-knowledge. As Jung tells us in the opening quotation, these projections are always associated with emotion. When we have a strong emotion, we are necessarily involved in a projection and therefore some level of unconsciousness, bondage, and lack of objectivity. This is as true for modern people as it was for our primitive ancestors. As Jung so often said, “. . . . we are still swamped with projections.”[10]

Jung distinguishes between emotions or affects, which are rooted in the body and the unconscious, and feelings, which are a rational and cognitive faculty. For Jung, “Emotions are instinctive, involuntary reactions that upset the rational order of conciseness by their elemental outburst. Affects are not ‘made’ or willfully produced; they simply happen.”[11] In contrast, feeling is a rational judgment, a way of knowing, based on values, of likes and dislikes. Therefore, we may have strong feelings and yet not be projecting. We may, for example, feel great love for somebody and yet not be involved in an emotion laden projection with all its distortions and compulsions.

The unconscious continually projects compelling images, whether they are expressions of the shadow, the anima, or the wise old man. For Jung, “Projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face.”[12] It’s a major psychological event, often an important milestone in individuation, when we recognize and withdraw a projection. Then what we believed was objective is seen as our own psychology being reflected back to us by emotion-laden images of the outer world. Only when we clearly see this are the compulsion and distortion of the projection broken. It is like a shaft of sunlight knifing through the early morning fog. We are astonished at how projection clouded our vision and action, how it emotionally pulled us this way and that, how our fantasies fabricated the world. How the psyche deceived us and yet educated us, obscured truth and revealed it! The psyche’s projecting power is a psychological reflection of the cosmic principle of illusion, Maya, which in Hinduism both veils and reveals Brahman, the Absolute. Just as Maya both obscures and unfolds reality, psychological projection veils the object projected upon and reveals the subject projecting. The removal of a projection frees us from the obscured object, allows us to see it more clearly, increases our self-knowledge, and restores to us the emotional energy and psychological attributes we had formerly projected. Like a drowning man gulping fresh air, we relish our freedom from the compulsive power of the old projection, the old illusion, and celebrate the reclaimed talent or content.

Through projection the psyche manufactures our world, which we then take as objectively real. The great difficulty is that while caught in a projection we are fully convinced that the offending or attracting quality is truly in the object. We have not the slightest doubt that the quality is where we see it-in the outer world-where we have no control over it.

Projection is a pivotal notion in depth psychology because it is the first mode of expression, in waking consciousness, of a content of the unconscious. For example, what others might consider just an ordinary woman becomes, for the right man, an alluring enchantress. Through the magic of projection she can become irresistible, as she incarnates his own feminine nature, an unconscious content that seeks the light of consciousness. While projecting he never clearly sees the individual woman nor is he free from compulsion. Perhaps most important, if we are projecting, we have not assimilated that content. For example, the ardent lover never directly contacts his own feminine nature, never directly knows the feminine personification of his own soul, but is bound to its carrier in the outer world. In short, while projecting we neither know nor have conscious access to the function involved. Yet, individuation demands that we consciously integrate these contents and psychological powers into our psyche. As Jung says, “The detachment of the imagos that give the object their exaggerated significance restores to the subject that split-off energy which he urgently needs for his own development.”[13]

It is important to stress that both positive and negative contents from the unconscious are first experienced in the outer world through projection and it is through this avenue that we can assimilate them. It is not just the shadow, that nest of primitive repressions and undeveloped psychological functions, which gets projected on others, but also positive qualities. For example, our unconscious divinity, our higher self, gets superimposed upon the guru.

Let me develop these ideas on projection by extracting some ideas from my recent paper[14] on the transference. Depth psychological analysis usually arouses a whole panoply of unconscious complexes, expectations, and emotional needs that the analysand usually projects on the analyst. Within the context of the initially asymmetric therapeutic relationship, this special case of projection is called transference. These projections and their associated phenomena are frequently connected with childhood relationships, but they need not be restricted to them. Being human, the analyst can also get caught in similar unconscious projections, known as counter transference. Usually analysts have sufficiently developed their consciousness so that they make fewer projections and this allows for the eventual resolution of the transference phenomena-a critical component of most successful analyses.

Figure 1

Figure 1 is a slight generalization of the fourfold diagram Jung developed in his famous essay “The Psychology of the Transference.”[15] The major difference between my diagram and Jung’s is that I have removed gender references. I’ll illustrate its meaning by a simple example. The analyst discusses the analysand’s relationship with his father. The double-headed arrow, (a), represents this two-way conscious interaction. This conscious questioning activates the analysand’s unconscious, stirring up old memories and unresolved issues-represented by arrow (c) pointing down. Feelings of anger and shame overtake him-represented by arrow (c) pointing upward. The analysand unconsciously projects aspects of the father complex on the analyst-represented by arrow (d) pointing upward. The analysand may, for example, develop an extreme touchiness toward any display of authority of the analyst. The analyst becomes aware of this unconscious behavior, represented by the arrow (d) pointing downward. The analyst gets intuitions about the analysand by contacting his unconscious-the double-headed arrow (b). The analyst may also project something like ungrateful son on the analysand-the arrow (f). Finally, the fully unconscious interaction between analyst and patient shown by arrow (e) Jung calls participation mystique. This interaction, being fully unconscious, is both obscure and powerful. All these interactions are difficult to disentangle in practice since, as Jung pointed out, they are simultaneously present. Nevertheless, at times one or a few of these interactions dominate.

Here I take the usual causal point of view, which is when one well-defined person or thing brings about an action or effect in another well-defined person or thing. I follow Jung and conventional usage and use the word causal to describe these interactions governed by energy or information exchange studied in psychodynamics or physics. For example, the analyst’s questioning of the analysand, arrow (a), causes the analysand to ponder his relationship with his father, which in turn causes the analysand to contact his father complex, arrow (c), which in turn causes the analysand’s anger, projection on the analyst, and so on. Later I’ll discuss a noncausal type of interaction between guru and disciple, one not involving well-defined causes for every given effect, but where meaningful connections still exist between the guru and the disciple’s experience.


III. Paul Brunton on the Guru-Disciple Relationship

Anybody who has had a guru knows it is a singular relationship, but exactly what makes it special? How does it differ from an intimate and long lasting friendship, a marriage, or a deep therapeutic relationship? How important is the enormous inequality usually found in such relationships? Can we merely attribute the uniqueness to the guru and disciple having been together in previous lifetimes as Easterners do? If it’s so unique, will transference theory help in understanding it?

Although every intimate human relationship is ultimately shrouded in mystery, the guru-disciple presents special problems. The celebrated transmission between guru and disciple in Chinese and Japanese Ch’an or Zen, the pivotal initiatory role played by the lama in Tibetan Buddhism, the reports that Sri Ramakrishna, one of the greatest Hindu saints of the previous century, willfully gave his most famous disciple, Swami Vivekananda, several glimpses of higher reality[16] or the quotations to follow from Paul Brunton about the parapsychological link between guru and disciple all point to the venerable and widespread belief that the guru powerfully affects disciples in unique spiritual and psychological ways not possible in other intimate relationships. But these occult links present special difficulties for a psychological analysis. Controlled empirical data on the guru-disciple relationship is exceedingly difficult to obtain, the language describing it varies greatly from one tradition to another, and detailed discussion is either nonexistent or obscure. The natural tendency is to reduce the relation to the transference or dismiss its specialness altogether. This move robs the guru-disciple relationship of any uniqueness and makes it impossible to appreciate the powerful experiences surrounding it.

Rather than attempt a cross-cultural analysis of the diverse guru-disciple relationships and ferret out its universal nature (if there is such), I take the more manageable approach of relying on the writings of Paul Brunton, whose analysis of this relationship is the most detailed and careful known to me. I’ll not summarize these writings, which cover everything from the need for a guru, seeking a guru, the difficulty of finding a qualified guru, to the qualifications and duties of both guru and disciple. I’ll only use those ideas bearing directly on the unique psychological and spiritual relationship between guru and disciple. I encourage the reader interested in the broader issues to refer directly to his writings.[17] Though to an academic psychologist Brunton’s writings occasionally verge on guru pronouncements rather than analysis, they do provide a deeper understanding of this complex relationship without reducing it to mere transference. Let’s begin by focusing on the special telepathic cable or link built up between the guru and disciple through deep affection, trust, and loyalty.

The attitude of the student towards his teacher is of great importance to the student, because it lays an unseen cable from him to the teacher, and along that cable pass to and fro the messages and help which the teacher has to give. The teacher can never lose contact with the student by going to another part of the world. That unseen cable is elastic and it will stretch for thousands of miles, because the World-Mind consciousness will travel almost instantly and anywhere. Contact is not broken by increasing physical distance. It is broken by the change of heart, the alteration of mental attitude by the student towards the teacher. If the attitude is wrong, then the cable is first weakened and finally snapped. Nothing can then pass through and the student is really alone.[18]

Any two individuals could build up such a telepathic cable based on deep affection and trust. For example, husband and wife, mother and child, or analyst and analysand could develop such links. This accounts for the well-known cases of telepathic connections at death and times of grave emergency or in critical phases of an analysis. However, through meditation practices, the guru has built up an especially powerful mind that can send genuine help to a receptive disciple. This helpful connection is especially possible when the disciple uses the guru’s image as a focus for meditation, which is done in many traditions, or mentally reaches out to the guru for inspiration and help. In the following quotation Brunton uses the term “Overself” to symbolize the formless and unobjectifiable principle of awareness at the core of our being. Although not empirically accessible, this Overself, or some functional equivalent, is universally held to exist in the major mystical traditions.

The projected ideas and concentrated thoughts of a man who has made a permanent connection with his Overself are powerful enough to affect beneficently the inner life of other men. But even here nature requires the latter to establish their own inner connection with him in turn. And this can be done only by the right mental attitude of trust and devotion.[19]

The link to the guru, built with the “right mental attitude of trust and devotion,” will inevitably be in large part based upon projection. Yes, the guru may in fact be a true spiritual giant, a shining incarnation of wisdom and compassion. Yes, as many traditions hold, an Overself to Overself level of the connection exits that transcends the psyche, the realm of forms and images. Nevertheless, the powerful affects, the compulsive desire to be always in the guru’s presence, gladly receive her smallest glance, hang on her every word, mimic her values and ideas, the extreme dependency and devotion, the relinquishing of so much of our identity, and so forth, all show that the disciple is in the grips of a compelling projection. This beneficial “inner connection” is needed for the help to flow, but it’s built at least in part on the back of a projection-herein lies its liability.

If we have any doubt that “the right mental attitude of trust and devotion” is based at least partly on projection, consider the all too numerous examples of betrayal of disciples by gurus. In these cases the good qualities seen were not truly in the guru. Nevertheless, the projection of good qualities on the evil guru is still beneficial for the disciple. As Brunton says in referring to the guru as “Symbol,”

Even if the Symbol were a man devoid of spiritual power and light, its effects would still appear beneficially within his life. This is because he has imagined it to be powerful and enlightening and the creative power of his own thought produces some benefit. If however the Symbol were an evil and living man, then the effects would be more or less harmful. This is because a subconscious telepathic working exists between the two minds though the intense devotion and passive submission of the one to the other.[20]

Here the disciple’s imagination constellates the projection of good qualities on the evil guru. This projection activates the desirable qualities in the disciple and he is thereby benefited. Of course, with a living evil guru the disciple is also telepathically linked to his depravity.

I am not being reductionist in emphasizing the projections involved in the guru-disciple relationship. I am not saying that the relationship is “nothing but” projection. Certainly the guru is an authentic being in his own right and the relationship involves more than psychological projection. A spiritual connection at the Overself level, discussed more below, works “underneath” our psychology. Nevertheless, the connection to the guru must also work through the psychology of both guru and disciple and this, not the transcendent spiritual connection, is where problems arise. It is therefore vitally important to identify the projections and deal constructively with them if we are to grow as disciples. If we are to move beyond spiritual infancy and avoid some of the pitfalls of unconsciousness, we need to see both the veiling and revealing aspect of our projection on the guru.

However, there is an important point here. Usually a serious involvement in a spiritual path demands tremendous changes from the disciple. There are often new moral injunctions, new psychological demands, new disciplines such as meditation, study of often difficult scriptural texts, dietary changes, etc. If the disciple is to make these transformations and persist with them she must be swept up with the guru and her message. In other words, successfully following the particular spiritual path usually requires the power of the projection to make the necessary changes. Yet, as we have seen and will see in more detail, projection has its liabilities.

For the moment, let me set aside the liabilities of the guru-disciple relationship and focus instead on more details of the interaction. Sometimes the guru willfully and consciously sends help and at other times the disciple gets help by being receptive to the general mental radiation of the guru. The following quotation discusses the conscious and willful form.

The Master may add his spiritual vitality or inspiration temporarily to the disciple’s by merely wishing him well. If this is done during the Master’s prayer or meditation, the disciple’s subconscious will spontaneously pick up the telepathically projected flow and sooner or later bring it into consciousness. If, however, something more precise and more positive is required, he may consciously will and focus it to the disciple while both are in a state of meditation at the same time.[21]

If we return to Figure 1 above and replace the analyst-analysand by the guru-disciple, we see that Brunton is talking about the arrow labeled (d) pointing downward. The guru is consciously and willfully sending help to the disciple’s unconscious. This help eventually manifests in the disciple’s consciousness via the upward arrow (c). This transition along arrow (c) from the implanted helpful mental impulse in the unconscious of the disciple to a particular form of imagery or emotion is unpredictable and fraught with peril. Here is where our personal psychology can contaminate the impulse. Here is where the psychic energy supplied by the guru’s helpful impulse can get siphoned off into the all too familiar expressions in sexuality and egotistical power, rather then used as an impetus to genuine spiritual development. Therefore, qualified gurus clearly need to be good judges of who can profitably use their help.

In these cases where the guru is conscious and willful about his actions, this is a causal telepathic interaction between guru and disciple. However, acausal or noncausal connections are also possible. (I remind the reader that acausal is not irrational.)

A guru has two ways to give help to his disciples. The first is a conscious one whereas the second is not. And it is the second, the apparently less important way, which is really the commonest one. Just as the sun does not need to be aware of every individual plant upon which it sheds its beneficent life-giving growth-stimulating rays, so the master does not need to be aware of every individual disciple who uses him as a focus for his meditations or as a symbol for his worship. Yet each disciple will soon realize that he is receiving from such activities a vital inward stimulus, a real guidance and definite assistance. This result will develop the power unconsciously drawn from the disciple’s own higher self, which in turn will utilize the mental image of the master as a channel through which to shed its grace.[22]

Again, referring to Figure 1 above, we can see that Brunton is talking about a connection between the unconscious of the guru and that of the disciple, the arrow (e). As a quotation soon to follow will show, saying that this help comes from the guru’s unconscious is incorrect. In fact, the helpful force truly emanates from a completely impersonal and formless realm, from the Overself of the guru as Brunton calls it. (The term Overself-used interchangeably with higher self, Atman, or soul-should not trouble Buddhist no-self sympathizers, since it is an impersonal, unobjectifiable principle of awareness functionally equivalent to such Buddhist terms as Buddha Mind or Mind of Clear Light.) The last sentence of the quotation reminds us that the true intelligence powering the disciple’s development (stimulated by the guru) is the individual’s own Overself.

Jung has no corresponding term for this formless Overself realm, which he claims is not empirically accessible and thus not a fit subject for his psychological analysis. This is where depth psychology leaves off and transcendent spirituality begins. For example, the advanced meditator seeks to contact this formless realm directly, to know it by becoming it-to know through identity, rather than in any objective mode. This impetus from the guru’s formless Overself-a true spiritual impulse-gets manifested in the consciousness of the disciple via the usual arrow (c) with all the dangers inherent in the transition.

More important, this is not a causal relationship. The guru is not causing a particular event to occur. Her ego, her conscious personality, is neither willfully nor consciously influencing the disciple. Her mere spiritual presence, like the sun, provides for the growth. In fact, the sun analogy can be misleading, since we can causally trace, through photosynthesis, the actual influence of the sun on a plant. In this guru-disciple interaction, the relationship is not causal in this direct sense. Instead, the stimulating presence of the guru provides, through the telepathic link, a nurturing mental environment that encourages our soul, our Overself, to manifest more fully without the direct action of the guru. Occasionally this noncausal interaction irrupts in synchronicity experiences, acausal and meaningful connections between inner psychological states and objective events in the outer world. I discuss several examples of this in my recent book, Synchronicity, Science, and Soul-Making.[23]

Because of the mysterious nature of this indirect power of the guru, it is worth including another passage about it from Brunton.

Where the teacher is a man of genuine Overself-consciousness, a further force is brought into play. There is a spontaneous reaction to the student’s thought about the teacher, but this comes from the Overself direct to the student and over the head, as it were, of the teacher himself. It is, moreover, not necessary for the adept to think of each of his disciples separately and individually. It is enough if he retires daily from contact with the world for a half hour or hour and turns his attention towards the Divine alone and opens himself as a gate through which it shall pass for the enlightenment of others. During that same period, all those who are mentally devoted to him will then automatically receive the transmitted impulse without their even being consciously in the adept’s mind at the time. But such a guide is rare and such cases are consequently exceptional.[24]

Here the help clearly “comes from the Overself direct to the student and over the head, as it were, of the teacher himself.” Such a guru with sufficient spiritual power does no thinking or willing; nevertheless, we receive help. In this sense it is truly acausal, without a cause in the conventional sense of a well-defined entity exerting a force or change on another thing.

It’s worth mentioning that a common trick is to inflate the value of the guru, his power, and our relationship to him as a primitive means of inflating our own personality and importance. We all too easily lose sight of the truth that the guru is a personification or symbol of our true self, which is the actual guru. As Brunton says, “Because so few can even detect their true self, or hear its voice in conscience, or sense its presence in intuition, the infinite wisdom of God personifies it in the body of another man for their convenience, inspiration, and aid.”[25]

In summary, two distinct influences radiate from the guru: one is a causal, willful, and particular, the other is the more general benefit of receptively being in his mental atmosphere. From the disciple’s side these are often difficult to distinguish. We tend to inflate our own importance and credit them all to the personal intervention of the guru.

There is a long tradition that a guru with sufficient spiritual power can trigger a mystical glimpse of the disciple’s higher self or soul. (Recall Ramakrishna and Vivekanada.) As Brunton stresses, this glimpse is not enlightenment and the disciple must win this foretaste through diligent work. Nevertheless, it is a numinous and unforgettable experience.

It is the common way to demand entry into enlightenment through someone else. This renders it needful to make clear that nobody, not even the best of gurus, can bestow final and lasting realization–a glimpse is the most he can possibly pass on and there are not many with that capacity. Even in such cases, his disciples must work diligently and win it themselves.[26]

Granted that run-of-the-mill gurus do not have this capacity of “passing on” a glimpse of the soul to the disciple and that the disciple needs to work for the glimpse; it is still astonishing that one person can genuinely “arouse” such a precious and unforgettable experience in another.


IV. Withdrawing Projections and Maintaining Links

Despite my knowledge of several experiences where the guru was believed to trigger a glimpse of the disciple’s higher self, I am unable to prove the validity of any of them. For my purpose, it is enough to consider them as strong beliefs of those involved. Even within this cautious empiricism, it is easy to see how such unforgettable spiritual experiences could powerfully affect the disciple. If disciples believe that the guru in some mysterious way, brought about, triggered, or made possible a spiritual glimpse of their soul, their highest good, or even some lesser help, then such experiences can effortlessly heighten a projection to an extraordinary degree. Is it any wonder that such numinous experiences where we might believe that the guru is truly the “hand of God” enkindling our spiritual evolution could easily turn a guru into a god or induce us to transform reverence and admiration to idolatry and guru mania?

Such excesses are familiar to anybody who has spent time in ashrams, Zendos, monasteries, or spiritual communities of any sort with a strong guru. Such exuberances are both understandable and necessary at an early stage when we are forging a spiritual link between guru and disciple and making the initial transformations required on a spiritual path. However, as Jung tells us in the opening quotation, “Emotional relationships are relationships of desire, tainted by coercion and constraint; something is expected from the other person, and that makes him and ourselves unfree.” What started as an effort at liberation ends in a new bondage. Yes, guru worship (assuming a worthy guru) is a step up from aimlessness or materialism. Yet, whether chains or silks bind us, we are still bound, still far short of objective vision and the coniunctio or union with our own soul.

It is true that the first avenue to awareness of an unconscious content is through projection. A content or psychological power that “wishes” to be known must do so by being projected into the outer world. Whether the shadow, animus, or wise woman, we cannot directly relate to it as a force or intelligence in the unconscious. We first need to see it in the outer world. However, if we leave a part of ourselves in the object, if we remain entrapped in the projection, then we never assimilate the content. Then the power never becomes a functional part of ourselves, we never clearly see that upon which we project, and we are always bound to the carrier of the projection. Recognizing and withdrawing a positive projection means that we now have the task of developing that function or power ourselves. The guru, for example, can no longer be our embodiment of wisdom. We must learn to think deeply ourselves.

Even more tragically the unassimilated projection diminishes us, reduces us from what we could be. If the guru is the embodiment of wisdom, creativity, compassion, and mystical depth, what does that make me? If I always and inevitably compare my attainment with his, see that wisdom, creativity, compassion, and depth only in him, then how will I ever attain them? Must we always remain like a small planet orbiting a large star? It is true that the telepathic cable or link is built on love, loyalty, and trust. Yes, egoity and negativity needs to be put aside to open ourselves to the wisdom and inspiration of the guru. No doubt self-criticism and humiliation must occasionally be endured as we become aware of our deficiencies and our ugliness. Initially, it is inevitable that we absorb teaching and inspiration largely through simple imitation or mimicry. It is understandable that we become dependent upon the teaching, inspiration, and example of the guru. However, if we stay with these massive projections, these invidious comparisons, self-deprecations, mimicry, and dependency then how can we possibly move beyond our identity as an adoring disciple, a weak imitation of the guru? How can we clearly or objectively see the guru in his full humanity and spirituality? How can we ever attain our authentic being, what we are meant to be, our truth itself? How can we ever “stand alone within and one with God” as Brunton advises us in the opening quotation?

Although the problem is usually less intense, similar difficulties arise in a depth analysis. The analysand projects power, wisdom, intuition, compassion, and depth upon the analyst and unless they resolve this transference, unless the analysand assimilates the projected qualities, he leaves the analysis dependent, crippled, and diminished. Jung is clear on the need for the patient to stand alone, to break free of the analyst and rely solely upon his higher self.

. . . . I know from experience that all coercion-be it suggestion, insinuation, or any other method of persuasion-ultimately proves to be nothing but an obstacle to the highest and most decisive experience of all, which is to be alone with his own self, or whatever else one chooses to call the objectivity of the psyche. The patient must be alone if he is to find out what it is that supports him when he can no longer support himself. Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation.[27]

We cannot learn to stand alone and find what truly supports us until we reclaim these parts of ourselves unconsciously projected on the outer world. Rather than attempt the more complex general discussion about withdrawing projections, I’ll just focus on the guru-disciple relationship.

Before going on, however, I want to stress two points. First, no specific procedure or suggestions will fit every person. In psychological and spiritual matters, the uniqueness of the individual always prohibits more than just general prescriptions. No one remedy will fit all cases. Second, as I stated above, for most of us, the initial phases of our spiritual transformation require the power of the projection to effect the necessary changes. Therefore, this process of withdrawing projections is just beginning in me and I cannot lead others where I have not been. For both these reasons I lean upon experts.

Accepting Imperfections and Limitations: Perhaps the first thing we can do to diminish idolatry and remove projections is to realize that nobody is perfect, not even a sage or Buddha, a fully realized individual who is simultaneously and continuously aware of absolute reality and the conventional world of persons and things. Although Jung doubted the possibility of sagehood, he always emphasized that the goal of psychological individuation was completeness and not perfection. As Brunton stresses, human perfection is not possible even at the highest spiritual level. He says, “The first and last illusion to go is that any perfect men exist anywhere. Not only is there no absolute perfection to be found, but not even does a moderate perfection exist among the most spiritual of human beings.”[28]

Much anger and pain arise when disciples see their guru is merely human, when they see their idol has feet of clay. However, if from the beginning we don’t expect even “moderate perfection,” then we’ll not be as disillusioned when the guru’s human weaknesses reveal themselves.

Unfortunately the problem is very difficult, since the very nature of projecting the higher self or soul always seems to demand perfection in the recipient or the carrier of the projection. I suggest that inherent in the inner apprehension of our soul is our unconscious appreciation of its perfection and godliness and these attributes inevitably get packaged in with the projection. If the projection is powerful enough, at least initially, we cannot help expecting perfection from the guru. In other words, just as the projection of the anima, the feminine principle within a man, entangles a man in an appreciation of beauty, both inwardly and outwardly, so the projection of the higher self inevitably entangles us in the perception of perfection in the guru-even when it cannot truly be found in any person.

Yet, realizing the unattainableness of perfection need not diminish our deepest affection and admiration. As Brunton says,

Why do they arbitrarily try to make the illuminate into a perfect and superhuman creature and not let him remain the human being that he really is! Why do they remain quite unseeing to his shortcomings and find glib excuses for his failings? Is there not enough genius or greatness still left in him to be quite worthy of our deepest admiration? Why not give him his due without this unnecessary act of deification, which merely drags the sublime down to the absurd.[29]

Recognizing our Expectations for Undeserved Expertise: A spin-off of the projection of perfection or godliness is the unconscious expectation for the guru to have expertise in areas well beyond his true strengths. For example, the guru may have great metaphysical understanding or an extremely developed talent for penetrating into the most abstract philosophic questions. For this we may have great admiration that helps draw out our projection. However, his metaphysical acumen does not automatically qualify him to pronounce on matters concerning the health of the physical body, politics, or marriage relationships. Of course, if he took a special interest in these areas he may have a great deal to teach us here too. Nevertheless, a master metaphysician is not automatically a great medical healer, political analyst, or marriage counselor. Or imagine a monk who is a great meditation master. His accomplishments in this realm do not automatically qualify him as a good career counselor. Our failure to appreciate where the guru has extraordinary expertise and where he struggles for insight as we do often cloaks him with a mantle of authority in all areas of inner and outer life-usually to our mutual detriment.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Psychology: The idea that psychology can have as important a role as I am sketching here offends many involved in spiritual movements. We falsely believe we are sophisticated spiritual seekers, beyond the reach of primitive psychological problems such as the transference. We presume the divine in us purely responds to the divine incarnated in the guru. It does not matter that spiritual teachers such as Anthony Damiani[30] or Paul Brunton[31] are quite clear on the importance of the transference. We persist in believing that our pure devotion to the guru is beyond the pull of psychology. Of course, the denial of projection or transference only gives the phenomena a freer hand and makes us more susceptible to the dangers of unconsciousness, compulsive behavior, and lack of objectivity. To receive the best fruits of the guru-disciple relationship and avoid some of its worst pitfalls, spiritual pride must be set aside. Tangled up with the genuine spiritual impulse of the guru are all sorts of psychological projections, from the ideal love we never got from our real father to the belief that the guru is an omniscient and perfect spiritual magician.

Appreciating the Guru as Symbol: It is easy to underestimate the power of symbols. Yet the symbol is the gateway to higher realities, the bridge to the archetypal realm of power and meaning. When the symbol is the incarnation of the highest in us then seeing it as such and not being too literal, too materialistic, is even more important. There is a danger of turning the symbol into that for which it stands. In other words, if our soul is a ray of the divine and the guru symbolizes that ray, then we must resist making the guru a divinity. The following Brunton quotation makes that clear:

To maintain this purity, to safeguard the relationship itself, and to protect the master as well as the seeker, the proper teaching must be given from the start and that is: the teacher must be regarded as a symbol, not as a person. He is to be considered merely as an agent for that which he represents, not as just another human being entering into a human relation with a disciple.[32]

These are difficult lessons. I tried telling them to myself while grieving over the death of my guru. True as it may be, it simply did not work. It is one of those truths that if you are ready to implement it then you don’t need it. If you need it, you can’t implement it. Nevertheless, it is good at least to know it intellectually and begin the process of looking inside rather than outside for what symbolized. This understanding has the further benefit of protecting us from disappointment and a sense of betrayal when we discover human imperfections in the guru.

The proper attitude is to regard the Master as a symbol of the higher power, so that the veneration and devotion proffered are directed towards that power. To look upon him as an intermediary, between the disciple and God, is to fall into the error of looking outside his own self for that which, when he finds it, will be within him and nowhere else.[33]

Recognizing Psychological Limitations: Withdrawing projections assumes that the conscious personality, the ego, assimilates the projected quality. Take the simplest example. We project our shadow, our inferior unadapted personality characteristics, upon another person of the same sex. We rail and wail, “I hate him when he lies so baldly to me!” However, it is not enough merely to admit that we too sometimes lie. Precisely what quality in his lying upsets us so? Exactly what aspect of his lying so infuriates us? “Aha! His lying always aims to make him seem more important than he really is.” Now we have the precise trait needing scrupulous monitoring in us. Then we can consciously integrate it into our personality until, like an old friend, its habits are as familiar to us as our friend’s face. This requires long, hard effort and puts considerable moral demands on us.

Now move to a more difficult example, the extraordinary magical attraction I feel toward that woman. Even assuming more than biological attraction, identifying precisely those qualities that attract me will be more difficult. As with the shadow, I start by identifying, for example, her warmth and sensitivity to the feelings of others as important attractions-qualities barely known and functional in me. I have buried these attractive qualities or powers in what Jung calls my personal unconscious, my particular version of the archetypal psychic heritage of humanity. Now, recognized in another, my conscious personality can begin to integrate or assimilate these qualities. I can become warmer and more sensitive to the needs of others. However, if I go deeper, my projection is incarnating the archetypal feminine in man, what Jung calls the anima. Being a universal archetype, we can never fully assimilate the anima into consciousness. Since the archetypes are structural determinants of consciousness, my ego can never make them fully objective or assimilate them. I can make contents of my feminine nature available to me and remove my projection. However, I’ll never fully depotentiate the anima as universal archetype. She will always be another, an archetypal autonomous power and intelligence buried in the collective unconscious. Because of its archetypal roots, the anima is always experienced as a separate power.

Now move to our central concern, the projection of our Overself image on the guru. Here, once past the personal traits as in the anima, we realize that the ego is a content within soul, a limited expression of soul, and thus it can never assimilate its prior. That would be as impossible as a dream character fully understanding the greater mind having the dream in which it appears. Yes, we can slowly get to know aspects or traits of our own soul that we project on the guru and painstakingly bring these traits or powers into conscious relationship with our ego. We can realize that the fascination powering our projection is actually a quest for something within us-our unconscious love for the divine spark within. However, the best the ego can do is become a willing servant of the soul-never its director. The ego, the finite and personal concretization of the divine, cannot assimilate its prior, the infinite and impersonal soul.

Appreciating the dangers of imitation: One Finger Zen

Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A boy attendant began to imitate him in this way. When anyone asked the boy what his master had preached about, he would raise his finger.

Gutei heard about the boy’s mischief. He seized and cut off his finger. The boy cried and ran away. Gutei called and stopped him. When the boy turned his head to Gutei, Gutei raised up his one finger. In that instant the boy was enlightened.[34]

Mumon uses this Zen story to discuss attachment. This shocking, even brutal, story has yet another meaning for me. I believe it says that only when imitation or mimicry of the guru becomes impossible can we find enlightenment or at least a satori. But what is imitation? Marvin Spiegeleman[35] tells me that one way to understand it is as an unconscious attempt at assimilating the contents projected. Initially, certain behavior or values in the guru fascinate us. His wisdom, devotion, dedication, intuitive brilliance, or whatever quality it might be powerfully attracts us. The fascination or allure tells us projection is taking place. To assimilate those qualities that the psyche “wants” us to know, to make them our own, we unconsciously imitate them. Children imitate parents to self-actualize-to become grownups like mom or dad. We imitate friends and others we admire.

I believe the difficulty lies not merely in the unconsciousness of the imitation, but in its indiscriminate, even promiscuous, nature. Imitation seeks to absorb everything, including that which is foreign to our true nature or even inimical to it. When we disciples are not adequately aware, we imitate our gurus-both those qualities that are important for us to actualize along with those that have nothing to do with who we truly are. In this way we are both unconscious and attempting to assimilate qualities that are often foreign to our deepest truth. While we project on and imitate the guru, we are far from our authentic being, our true individuality. Only when our mimicry is cut off, either by us or the guru, can we contact our true nature, that wholeness beyond the ego. Generally, mimicry is worn off by a long labor of discrimination and awareness, rather than quick surgery. What aspects of the guru’s teaching are really important for our development, what is important only for him? What behavior is peculiar to him and inessential?

Eventually we must graduate: It is an exceedingly delicate matter to decide when and how to learn to walk, or at least crawl, on our own. True, the genuine guru wants his disciples to be independent as soon as possible. Yet to try to be independent too soon can also be a form of resistance and negativity. We may be masquerading like mature individuals when in fact we are really just rebellious adolescents. How can we know when it is time? Only that which is deepest and least personal in us can tell. If this power won’t give clear direction, then we are probably not ready.

Ultimately the link we really want to cultivate is not the link to the personal guru, but what works through the guru, that transcendent principle symbolized and channeled through the guru as its human personification. This does not mean we ever need to reject the guru, for as Brunton says, “It is not at all necessary for anyone to reject the guru at any stage.”[36] Yet, if we are to find out who we truly are, not as disciples, but as authentic individuals, then graduation is as necessary as entering school. Brunton makes this point in several places,[37] but we only need to return to his quotation that opened this paper where he says, “In the end he must free himself inwardly from all things and, finally, both from whatever teacher he has and from the quest itself. Then only can he stand alone within and one with God.”[38]


V. Conclusions

Despite the avid interest in gurus in the last quarter century, the guru-disciple tradition has not easily transplanted to the West. Both our psyches and the conditions under which we play out the relationship are very different from those in traditional India. Yet many still need expert spiritual guidance, inspiration, and instruction.

To illustrate briefly the vast cultural differences between the original home of the guru-disciple relationship and its new home in the West, I’ll return to Ramakrishna, who frequently tells us: “One must have faith in the guru’s words. The guru is none other than Satchidanada. God Himself is the Guru. If you only believe his words like a child you will realize God. What faith a child has! . . . One must have this childlike faith in the guru’s words.”[39] Yes, the guru is ultimately none other than Satchidanada, the infinite Being-Consciousness-Bliss residing in the core of our being. However, if nothing else, recent scandals show the liabilities of childlike faith and dependence.

From the Buddhist side we find related ideas. The Essence of Refined Gold, perhaps the Third Dalai Lama’s most famous text and the popular subject of much modern commentary says,

In general, all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas have said that one should never see the ordinary failings of a human being in the guru. If you think that you see something low or base in your teacher, consider that it is just a reflection of your own impure attitudes. How are you able to really know what is and isn’t base? . . . . how can you believe that the faults that you seem to see in your guru are real? Generate conviction that he or she is a manifestation of the Buddha.[40]

Obviously an uncritical application of this idea can be disastrous, both for the guru and the disciple. The Dalai Lama is well aware of this problem and is now championing a much more critical and careful approach to the idea that we should see every action of the guru as perfect.[41] Although he does not appeal to notions of transference, his ideas harmonize with my suggestions.

In contrast to the Eastern position, consider the thirteenth-century Queste del Saint Graal that Joseph Campbell believes so sharply expresses the West’s emphasis on the supreme importance of the uniqueness of the individual. When the knights set out to find the holy grail, “They thought it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group. So each entered the forest at a separate point of his choice.”[42] If a knight came upon another searching for the grail and followed his path, rather than his own, he immediately became lost. As Campbell goes on to say:

This, I believe, is the great Western truth: that each of us is a completely unique creature and that, if we are ever to give any gift to the world, it will have to come out of our own experience and fulfillment of our own potentialities, not someone else’s. In the traditional Orient, on the other hand, and generally in all traditionally grounded societies, the individual is cookie-molded. His duties are put upon him in exact and precise terms, and there’s no way of breaking out from them. When you go to a guru to be guided on the spiritual way, he knows just where you are on the traditional path, just where you have to go next, just what you must do to get there. He’ll give you his picture to wear, so you can be like him. That wouldn’t be a proper Western pedagogical way of guidance. We have to give our students guidance in developing their own pictures of themselves. What each must seek in his life never was, on land or sea. It is to be something out of his own unique potentiality for experience, something that never has been and never could have been experienced by anyone else.

I believe Campbell overstates his case here. After all, the knights had their Merlin, their guru, upon whom they relied. Nevertheless, there is a genuine Western emphasis on the uniqueness and autonomy of the individual that contrasts sharply with Ramakrishna’s emphasis on childlike faith and the Third Dalai Lama’s injunction to see any failings in the guru as our own. But how can we reconcile the Western heritage of the uniqueness and autonomy of the individual with the loyalty, devotion, and faith needed to build the spiritual link with the guru? I suggest that understanding the role of psychological projection in laying the spiritual cable between guru and disciple can help us benefit from this relationship, guard us from some of its pitfalls, and reconcile our divergent cultural demands with those of the guru-disciple tradition.

But does the removal of projections truly protect us from the treachery of the all too common exploitive gurus? As I mentioned, we initially need the power of the projection to make the transformations required when first entering a spiritual path. Then, while involved in a projection, we are unconscious and thus most vulnerable to deceit. It may be possible that understanding these psychological mechanisms can be a partial safeguard. Yet, we cannot expect too much, for intellectual knowledge can rarely withstand the raw power of a full-blown projection. Nevertheless, I hope that scrutiny of the guru-disciple relationship, both the exposés and the present attempt at understanding, will remove our naiveté and safeguard us from at least some dangers.

Finally, I have found in my own practice and that of others how attempting to withdraw projections does not diminish affection for the guru nor decrease appreciation for his kindness and wisdom. On the contrary, it allows us to see him more clearly in his full humanity and spiritual greatness. Our love then becomes both fuller and freer. By attempting to assimilate what the guru symbolized in the outer world, we come into more intimate contact with the divine within. We bring that outer personification more deeply into the core of our being from which it truly springs.

When the various spiritual traditions migrated from India, they inevitably took on a coloration from the importing cultures. Perhaps a Western contribution to these ancient spiritual traditions is to combine them with modern psychological ideas grown out of our cultural soil, so that we may enjoy the great spiritual benefits of the guru-disciple relationship and yet avoid its psychological dangers.



I gratefully thank those friends who discussed their experiences of the guru-disciple relationship with me. I was honored to share such intimacies and learn from their joys and sorrows. I especially appreciated the opportunity to present these ideas in the Wisdom Goldenrod seminar on psychology and spirituality. For carefully reading and commenting upon this paper, I particularly thank Alan Berkowitz, Robert Conrow, Patricia Davies, Louis DeSarno, Avery Solomon, and Fred Weiner. I also thank Professor Robert Gussner of the Religion Department at the University of Vermont, Professors Joscelyn Godwin and Shimon Malin of Colgate University, and the Jungian Analyst Marvin Spiegelman of Studio City, CA for carefully reading and commenting on the paper. My spouse, Elaine, deserves special thanks for aiding me with several drafts of the paper and helping me clarify many ideas in it. My deepest gratitude goes to all my gurus, but especially to my root guru, Anthony Damiani, who taught me the meaning of the relationship and that the ultimate guru is closer than my own breath.



  1. Jung, C. G., Memories, Dreams, Reflections (Vantage Books, New York, 1963) pp. 296-7.
  2. Brunton, Paul, The Notebooks of Paul Brunton: The Quest (Larson Publications, Burdett, NY, 1986) p. 357.
  3. See for example the recent article by Harris, Lisa “O Guru, Guru, Guru,” The New Yorker, 1994, November 14, pp. 92-109 or for a broader review with references see reference 4.
  4. Wren-Lewis, John “Death Knell of the Guru System,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, vol. 34, 2, Spring 1994, pp. 46-71.
  5. Brunton, 1986, op. cit.
  6. Gyatso, Tenzin, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Path to Enlightenment (Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, NY, 1995), especially chapter 3.
  7. Kornfield, Jack, A Path With Heart (Bantam, NY, 1993); Bogart, Gregory C, “Separating from a Spiritual Teacher,” Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1992, Vol. 24, 1, pp. 1-21.
  8. von Franz, Marie-Louise, Psychotherapy (Shambhala, Boston, 1993) p. 238.
  9. Mansfield, Victor and Spiegelman, Marvin “The Physics and Psychology of the Transference as an Interactive Field,” submitted for publication to the Journal of Analytic Psychology, London, England.
  10. Jung, C. G., “Psychology and Religion,” Collected Works, Vol. 11, 1969, p. 83.
  11. Jung, C. G. “Consciousness, Unconscious, and Individuation,” Collected Works, Vol. 9i, 1977, pp. 278-9.
  12. Jung, C. G., Aion, Collected Works, Vol. 9ii, 1975, p. 9.
  13. Jung, C. G., “General Aspects of Dream Psychology,” Collected Works, Vol. 8, 1978, p. 275.
  14. Reference 10.
  15. Jung, C.G., “Psychology of the Transference,” Collected Works, Vol. 11, 1954.
  16. Swami Nikhilananda, translator, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, (Ramakrishna-Vivekanada Center, New York, 1973) pp. 57-8 and 72.
  17. Brunton, 1986, op. cit. and Essays on the Quest (Samuel Weiser, Inc., York Beach, Maine, 1985) chapter 9.
  18. Brunton, 1986, op. cit. p. 308.
  19. ibid. p. 337.
  20. ibid. pp. 350-351.
  21. ibid. p. 337.
  22. ibid. p. 344.
  23. Mansfield, Victor Synchronicity, Science, and Soulmaking, to be published in September 1995 by Open Court Publishing, Chicago, IL.
  24. Brunton, 1985, op. cit. p. 151.
  25. Brunton, 1986, op. cit. p. 346.
  26. Brunton, 1986, op. cit. p. 332.
  27. Jung, C. G., Psychology and Alchemy, Collected Works, Vol. 12, 1977, pp. 27-28.
  28. Brunton, 1986, op. cit. p. 267.
  29. ibid. p. 265.
  30. Damiani, Anthony private communication circa 1980.
  31. Brunton, 1986, op. cit. p. 267.
  32. ibid. p. 313.
  33. ibid. p. 348.
  34. Reps, Paul, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (Charles E Tuttle Con, Rutland, VT 1958) p. 119.
  35. Spiegelman, J. Marvin, private communication, July 1994.
  36. Brunton, 1986, op. cit. p. 355.
  37. Brunton, 1985, op. cit. pp. 155-6.
  38. Brunton, Paul, The Notebooks of Paul Brunton: The Quest (Larson Publications, Burdett, NY, 1986) p. 357.
  39. Nikhilananda, 1973, op. cit. p. 673.
  40. op. cit. Gyatso, Tenzin, p. 69.
  41. ibid. pp. 69-74.
  42. Campbell, Joseph, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers (Doubleday, New York, 1988) p. 151.