The Starr King School for the Ministry, (Unitarian Universalist) in Berkeley, one of the founding Schools of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) at the University of California, Berkeley, has been my "school of residence" for more than 35 years. Early in the new millennium, Starr King adopted a policy and program of "Educating to Counter Oppression" (ECO), requiring that all teachers and all classes undergo self-analysis in relation to the style and content of their classes, with particular regard to the extent to which these classes do, or do not "educate to counter oppression".
The following is a piece I wrote over the 4th of July, 2004 in response to the "reader" that ECO program designers put together to define and strengthen the program. It is a very interesting document, with a great deal of material drawn from sociology, history, and formal theology, but no material addressing the unconscious psychological issues that my experience convinces me are at the core of individual and collective oppression of all kinds.
This statement is another effort on my part to "think globally and act locally".
Although the document is addressed directly to the ECO effort at Starr King, the ideas and strategies are, I believe, foundational for an adequate encounter with the issue of "oppression" at all levels, and the strategy of countering oppression, both personal and collective, through evolution of consciousness, (which, in my experience, is the only thing that works...)
The dedication of Starr King to ECO, (Educating to Counter Oppression), is a very important element in the overall mission of training liberal religious clergy and other active, open-minded, effective spiritual leaders. In this effort it is crucial to address the unconscious psychological underpinnings of collective and individual oppression.(1)
The most significant psychological factor in the perpetuation of oppression, even in those who hold the serious, sincere, conscious conviction that all forms of oppression are wrong and must be confronted and overcome, is the ubiquitous unconscious process of "repression and projection".
Repression & Projection
Repression and projection are a matched set; one generates the other. "Repression" is the technical name for the interior psychological and emotional process that creates denial, and all the other forms of self-deception. When some dimly sensed aspect of the authentic, but not-yet-speech-ripe self appears to be too problematic and difficult to acknowledge and take conscious responsibility for, it is "automatically" repressed and denied, creating the inevitable, linked projection of that very same aspect out onto other people. It is most important to understand that this is a natural process, one which ordinarily takes place beyond the control and attention of conscious self-awareness. Whatever is being repressed and denied within does not actually "disappear"; it will inevitably "show up" as an unconscious projection, and will be perceived in the waking world as the exclusive "property" of someone else.
What we are unable and unwilling to see in ourselves jumps out at us in our perceptions of others. Anything which catches our attention - good, bad, or indifferent - will inevitably prove to be a reflection of some unacknowledged aspect of our own interior being. As the popular entertainment industry catch phrase has it: "If you spot it, you've got it!"(2)
The Moral Task of Making Projections Conscious
Fortunately, it is possible to make these unconscious denials and consequent distortions of perception more conscious.(3) When this is accomplished, behaviors change, and even the most seemingly intractable collective problems and individual people open up and become available to the processes of growth, evolution, and change.
To accomplish this, it is necessary to recognize that the two issues of interior self-acceptance and external social/economic/political/cultural oppression are psychologically linked, and at one important level are paired aspects of the same problem. The sad but constantly repeated truth of the matter is that whenever anyone denies some aspect of his/her own fundamental, flawed, unfinished humanness, it is inevitable, (because it is a natural unconscious process), that the person will then deny the essential humanity of others - particularly when they have the "bad taste" to look like the thing they are rejecting and denying in themselves.
For example, when the overt racist lists the "reasons" for his/her prejudice, (e.g. "those people" are "too lazy", "too irresponsible", "too sexually active", "too stupid", "too violent", "too sneaky", "too secretive", "too closed off", or just plain "too different" to be seen as individual fellow human beings, worthy of the same interest, curiosity, and concern we naturally give to people we recognize as "like us"), it is always an ironic form of confession. The litany of accusations becomes an ironic list of the things within the person that he/she has unconsciously denied and driven "underground" in the process of repression.
I like the grim joke the 12-steppers make about projection, (and only the truth is funny): "Every time you point your finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at yourself..."
Liberal Racism & Projection
In a social environment like Starr King, where the accepted, traditional cultural norm is liberal and egalitarian, the surface of appearance of oppression is often, (but not always), quite different from the face it shows in the larger society. Instead of rejecting, attacking, and/or shunning the "obviously different ones", there is a tendency to cut them a great deal of extra slack, and give them the "glad hand", in effort to prove the liberality of the individual and the overall culture of the School, Alas, reverse racism is still racism. It still reflects the obliteration of individual personality, complexity, and character in favor of a collective stereotype. It matters little in the long run that the "collective stereotype" seems more positive than negative, (often emphasizing "emotional strength", "indigenous wisdom", and "profound life experience"), it is still a racist/sexist/classist stereotype, and it still has the effect of effacing the individual and blocking the moments of potential authentic contact and communication.
No amount of elaborate social etiquette and theatrical attention to the details of "politeness" and "civility" will make any real difference in the long run; in such a situation, the only real avenue for positive change is interior exploration of the disowned aspects of self, (the "emotional strength", "indigenous wisdom", and "profound life experience", etc.), that are so much easier to "see", (that is: project) in others than acknowledge and take conscious responsibility for in ourselves.
Difficulties in Overcoming Projections
One of the problems that arises in thinking about and doing something about unconscious projections is that just because it's projection doesn't mean it isn't true. We common, garden-variety neurotics tend to project where there are "hooks" to hang it on. We project beauty on people who really are gorgeous; we project stupidity on people who really don't have a clue; we project nastiness on people who really are jerks. The problem is, we see these folks heave into view, flying their actual, beautiful, clueless, jerky colors, and in that instant, without a moment's conscious thought or self-aware reflection, we also give them "credit" not only for all the qualities they in fact possess, but also for all our own rejected and unacknowledged beauty, stupidity, and nastiness.
A Disagreement Among Friends
Whenever I find myself in basic agreement with friends about someone else being a jerk, but only I want to kill the jerk, (or, at very least, exile him/her to a distant island where I will never have to deal with them again), and my friends are simply annoyed and unwilling to sit at the same table with them at lunch, then the difference between my implacable dislike, and their mild distaste is the direct consequence of my projection onto that person.
What I'm projecting is the parts of myself that I dislike so intensely that I would like to "kill" them, or at very least exile them so far from any association with "me" that I never have to think about them again - that is until someone else comes along who evokes the same set of projections in me...
The same unconscious process of repression and projection is at work when we meet people whom we all agree are pretty nice, only I think they are the greatest thing since sliced bread, and my friends think their just sort of interesting and fun to be around. The differences in our estimations of these basically interesting and attractive people is not a reflection of those people themselves, so much as it is a reflection of the projections that are called forth by the "hooks" that they present us with.(4)
A Hindu-Buddhist Exercise
There is an ejaculatory prayer exercise from the Hindu-Buddhist tradition that often has a striking and transformative effect on the effort to become aware of, and withdraw unconscious projections. In Sanskrit, the prayer phrase (phonetically) is: "Tsam Tsvas Tvat", or, literally, "I am that."
This phrase is repeated immediately, interiorly, as a prayer, whenever the person encounters any situation in the world that touches or moves the person in any way, either positively or negatively. (Once again , "If you spot it, you've got it!") If I didn't have the emotional structure in my own psyche that corresponds to the scene before that touches my heart, I would even notice it, let alone be moved by it this fashion. In other words, anything that touches or moves me in the world, does so because it calls unconscious projections out of me when I encounter it.
Ram Dass offers what I think is a brilliant emendation of the strictly literal translation. He offers the prayer as: "I am that too."
As he points out, the literal translation, "I am that", tends in English to be "totalitarian", to extend to the very edges of awareness and blot out all other awarenesses. Adding the conjunctive "too" expands the consciousness it evokes. "I am that too. What else am I? I am the observing consciousness, aware that I am that. I am the body experiencing the feelings and the sensory data that is evoking the feelings. I am the feelings themselves, which pre-exist in me, and are only awakened, brought to the surface of waking consciousness by these seemingly external events. I am that too...!"
This exercise can be very effective in raising conscious awareness of the previously unconscious process and experience of projecting.
I do not believe that we human beings have the option of "not projecting" at this point in our evolutionary development.(5) Being in state of pure and objective awareness is a shining ideal toward which we may strive nobly, but we will not be able to achieve it. The upper range of practical, achievable possibility seems to me to become increasingly aware of that fact we are projecting, as we live our lives, and to adjust our behavior accordingly, becoming more sincere, intelligent, and compassionate in the process.
Imagining You Are the One
Another, home-grown exercise that also tends to have a profound impact on raising the conscious awareness and appreciation of projection was shared with me by a Starr King student, Dean Mitchell, many years ago. This exercise appears deceptively simple, but my experience is that it can lead to a profound expansion and alteration of consciousness.
This exercise requires that the person imagine for a period of time that the face of every person he/she meets is, in fact, the face of "the One", the one whom the person loves best, and is loved by best, in all the world.(6) It is important to imagine that the face, as I see it in the moment, is the face of "the One", and not to alter the face in imagination to look more like some fantasy ideal. How do I feel when I see the face of the One? I imagine for a moment that your face is The Face, the face of the one I longed for all my life and have found and become deeply connected to...
In many ways, this exercise turns projection on its head by preempting the unconscious process and making it conscious before it has a chance to operate in its usual, natural, "naive" fashion. The more one engages in this "experiment", the more one is likely to become aware of the power of this imagined relationship projected onto the faces of complete strangers as well as casual acquaintances and friends, (even those one already loves...) It provides an opportunity to "see" how much we do this same thing all the time, not necessarily with love, but with all the unconscious, not yet speech-ripe "stuff" we carry around inside us.
(A brief caveat: don't try this exercise unless you have a loose schedule and a fair amount of free time, because [partially, but not entirely due to the brief, intense eye-contact that this exercise inevitably generates], people will respond with a wide range of projections of their own: curiosity, fear, anger, longing, hostility, friendship, and... Many of them will end up with a compelling desire to get you to listen to their life stories... Simple kindness and civility may require you to slow down and listen...)
Final Thoughts (& a Nasrudin Story)
The effort to educate to counter oppressions is far too important a project to be limited to an exercise in social theory and better manners. The oppressions we visit on each other are primarily the result of unconscious processes, processes that can be lifted up to greater consciousness through fairly simple direct personal experience and honest, candid communal sharing.
There is a Sufi story that speaks to the quality to the effort that must be made: It is said that one day the incomparable Mullah Nasrudin went into the streets, frowning and searching with great intensity in the dust of the road. His neighbors quickly noticed his activity and hastened into the street to find out what he was doing.
"I have lost my beautiful gold ring!" Nasrudin replied in answer to their questions.
They all joined in the search in effort to help Nasrudin, but to no avail. Eventually one of his neighbors asked Nasrudin, "Oh, incomparable Mullah, when was the last time you remember having the ring on your finger?"
"Oh," replied Nasrudin, "The last time I remember having the ring securely on my finger was a while ago when I was in the back stable shovelling shit!"
"Oh!" said the neighbor in surprise, "Then don't you think we should go back and look for it in the stable?"
"Oh, no!" Nasrudin replied, "the light's much better for looking out here!"
(That which was originally lost, the symbolic gold ring [of healthy, whole individual consciousness and communal connection], in the dark and the shit [of the unconscious] must be sought there, if it is ever to be recovered, no matter how good the light [of conscious rational thought] is for looking out in the outer world.)
© Jeremy Taylor 2004
(1) If we were not still secretly using the example Roman Imperialism as our model of "high civilization", I believe we would have abandoned "unconscious" as our primary technical psychological term for the foundation of consciousness a long time ago, because the only thing it has going for it, as far as I can see, is that it is a word that has been cobbled together from academically fashionable Latin roots. There is a phrase from the Anglo-Saxon word hoard that serves our purposes a great deal better: that phrase is not yet speech-ripe. If, when you read the word "unconscious", or hear the word "unconscious", you try experimentally translating it to "not yet speech-ripe" in your mind, I believe you will immediately have a much clearer and more vivid understanding of what exactly is being talked about.
One big problem with relying exclusively on academically fashionable words cobbled together from Latin roots in our public discourse is that people who don't speak Latin and who don't have much respect for the academic world often conclude that "unconscious" stuff is of interest and concern only to people with letters after their names, and is of no real importance to "ordinary folks"... Alas, nothing could be further from the truth(!) That which is not yet speech-ripe, that which we have no words for and can't even think about, regularly comes in "under the radar" and presses against our awareness, clearly shaping and distorting our ideas, our feelings and most importantly our behaviors, (particularly our oppressive behaviors). This unconscious stuff matters.
(2) In technical Jungian terminology, what is repressed and projected most often is the archetypal image of the "Shadow". Negative projections reveal the shape of the "Dark Shadow", and positive projections point to the qualities of the "Bright Shadow", that is, a picture of the gifts, talents, and creative human possibilities that are more easily seen in others than in ourselves. Positive or negative, "dark" or "bright", it's still all projection, and all projection is ultimately more reflective and revealing of the person in whom the "strong feeling" is evoked, than it is of the person who evokes it.
(3) One of the main reasons I have made "archetypal group projective dream work" the center of my life and ministry for the last 35+ years, is that dreams are "the magic mirror never lies". Our dreams always reveal the shape of our unconscious waking life projections. For this reason, remembering and working with dreams is one of the best and most universally applicable strategies for "raising consciousness" and changing behavior around these issues of perpetuating oppression (and the linked self-rejection) because of unconscious (and therefore unexamined) projection.
(4) Once again, the Jungian concepts of "Bright Shadow" and "Dark Shadow" are very relevant here, (see note #2 above)
(5) Alas, I do not believe any of the people who say that there is "training" that you can undertake to "stop projecting". Even the much vaunted "training analysis" that psychiatrists and psychoanalysts are required to undertake to offset the effects of "transference and countertransference", (technical names for projection as it manifests between client and doctor in the analytic setting), can only make the analyst more aware of his/her propensity to project. With any luck, such training will promote more conscious awareness of the "hot button" emotional and symbolic issues that trigger projection, (countertransference), in his/her particular case, and hopefully instill a more sensitive and immediate awareness of the moments when it's happening. Similar "training" is particularly necessary and appropriate for seminary students and ministers who are serious about educating to counter oppression. Without direct experience of the projective phenomena, the intellectual work of "understanding" oppression is like reading the ingredients on the bottle, but never swallowing the medicine and letting it enter my system to do its healing work.
(6) It is important to understand that imagination is not just a function of idle fantasy. Imagination is the single most important faculty we possess to "see" and apprehend deeper, non-physical, psycho-spiritual truth. What I can imagine in good conscience, (not leaving out anything, keeping in mind everything I know, and not editing out the difficult parts, or the things I wish I didn't know, or even the worst things I suspect may be true), and what I can't imagine in good conscience, is the single most reliable test of greater truth that I know of... I am a Universalist, for example, because I cannot imagine in good conscience, (working hard to hold in mind everything I know,) that anything worthy of the noble name "God" would behave in such a fashion as to require or condone anything like "eternal damnation". The only thing that makes any sense to me is that anything worthy of the name "salvation" must be granted to all, or else to none. Salvation is a team sport, not an individual championship sport, and either we all make it, or none of us make it. Since anything worth being called "God" must, of necessity, be, (among other things), the Source and Support of All, then it is simply not honestly imaginable that anyone or anything can be permanently and eternally separated from its own ultimate nature and essential source... (The semiconscious illusion of separation may extend into uncountability, but it is just that, an illusion...)