Updated: May 24
The Buddhist teachings tell us everything is a projection. We create concepts about reality and project them onto the present moment. Car, tree, person, etc. are simply projections of our mind. Every time we project something onto reality in an unconscious way, the projection is strengthened. The truth of the underlying reality is that it is not static (as concepts are); it is constantly changing and much, much more fine grained. It’s good that we all project similar things onto reality, so that when you ask someone to hold the door, they don’t open the window! The difficulty arises when we are not aware that how we perceive the world is a projection.
The projection that is being pointed to here is similar, but on a personal, relational level. You may have somehow come to the conclusion that someone is a very kind person. If you are not conscious of this view, you will project that onto the person and view them through that projection. Behavior that would be seen as normal by other people will appear to you to exhibit the qualities of kindness. If not challenged, the projection will get stronger each time it happens and your understanding of the person will, over time, become more and more distorted. I used an example of a positive projection, but it can be, and often is, a negative projection.
One example that many people can relate to is when we fall in love with someone. Huge projections are happening as we project our idea of the perfect partner onto them. They could act in ways that are obviously troubling, but we may not notice, as we see them only through our projections. We are not relating to them as the person they are. We are relating to them through our projections of who we think they are and/or want them to be. If we are fortunate, we’ll have friends who can set us straight!
The above is an extreme example that can help us understand this phenomenon. Yet, we are doing this in small ways all the time. The person we are talking to is not exactly who they are, but some version of our projection. In and of itself, projection is not a problem. Where it becomes problematic is when we are not conscious of it. We actually think the person is the kind of person that we are projecting. Our projection can be, and usually is if it’s unconscious, way off the mark. Further, when we are under the delusion of unconscious projection, our ability to be intimate with the other person is greatly reduced.
One way to become conscious of our projections about someone is to write down all the things that we think about them: They’re like this, they’re like that. Just that practice alone can be illuminating and help to poke holes in the solidity of our projections. We can go further, though, and actively pay attention to their behavior to see if we can notice any traits that fly in the face of who and what we think they are. For instance, if you wrote down that someone was greedy, you would be on the lookout for acts of generosity, and so forth.
The important question to answer isn’t whether we are projecting onto others, but what we are projecting and are we aware of the projection? Attending to projections in this manner can go a long way toward encouraging our relationships to be healthy, close and fulfilling.