Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Transference and Plenitude

The little I've read about transference, in the therapeutic relationship, discusses it as a hazard of the trade. Something that might happen to you to interrupt the smooth running of your practice, like the water-main to your office breaking: your clients might imagine that they're falling in love with you. How annoying. We borrow the term from psychiatry, of course, and it brings its baggage from there: the ideal of the lofty, unmoved scientist bringing superior understanding, and hence healing, to the ignorant. For the patient, the therapist becomes, for instance, a stand-in for the father who would never love them as they craved. And the therapist's job is to let this happen without participating in it; so the patients works out their issues with their fathers -- the real issues -- through an unreal and imaginary relationship with their therapist. At the resolution, the cured patient understands that the therapist was just a stand-in, and leaves, with gratitude to the unmoved mover. Who rides slow and lonely into the sunset, to find another town that needs a hired gun.

Well. It's a crock, of course, from beginning to end. There's no such thing as imagining that you're falling in love. That's where falling in love happens, in the imagination; or, as you could also say, in the heart. There isn't any other kind. And therapists get into the business precisely because they crave adoration. Oh, they have other reasons, of course. But by and large that's what drives them.

Only one book I've read is imprudent enough to say plainly what the other kind of love looks like. That love isn't based on need, and doesn't resonate with the love of the father or the first lost love; it's a love that comes of plenitude rather than of wanting. The words get shriller and shriller, less and less convincing, till they dry up. They have the marks of fantasy all over them. Get over it, kids. All love is transference. All love is need. All love in the fallen world has far more to do with what we feel we lack than with disinterested admiration.

The fact is that transference, far from being an incidental hazard, is our stock-in-trade. The sooner we admit it the better. Boundaries are important not because they clarify the relationship, but because they misrepresent it. Without the fiction of the therapeutic distance, the whole thing would come down around our ears. It still does, often enough.

You showed a reluctance to cut to the chase and get on the table. We chatted easily. You paused a moment, and said, "you look good in green."

Well, I hope so; that's why I wear it. "Thanks," I said carelessly, and rapidly changed the subject, and got up and bustled about with the linens.

Later I used my forearms on your back. Not the elbow or the edge of the ulna, as we learn in class, to save our hands when we want to apply deep pressure. You can't handle deep pressure. I turned the edge of the ulna outwards and used the soft anterior forearm. I was just giving as much skin contact as I could, and still maintain the therapeutic fiction. You wanted touch. I was giving it to you. I wanted touch too; I was taking it.

At such moments only two things can keep me from going over the edge and crossing the boundary: sublime ignorance, or acute awareness. I must either believe that what's happening is entirely emotionally neutral, or understand exactly how involved I am in my own emotional need, and your emotional need, and my emotional need for your emotional need. But what I can't afford is vagueness or fuzziness.

This is the time to go for refuge, to recall the pure motivation disguised as need. I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the supreme assembly of the Sangha. The source of it all, of the need and the compassion, of the desire and of the connection, is pure Buddha-nature. I need to touch that. I need all the help of my practice tradition. Not to escape the need and the desire -- fat chance of that! But to go through it, to see past the apparent lack to the real plenitude. Not the plenitude of a healthy individual -- that will-o'-the-wisp -- but the plenitude of the Buddha.

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