We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.

This beautiful quote by Anais Nin distills the essence of projection into thirteen simple words. It is one of the more profound pieces of wisdom that, when understood and realized completely, can liberate us from so many of our unnecessary conflicts and suffering.

When we look out into the world around us, the circumstances in our lives, the people we encounter, things we see in the news, we are looking at all of it through a kind of filter. It’s as though there is a lens in our mind’s eye, which distorts the truth of what we are looking at, showing us reality a particular way.

This filter or lens operates automatically, and unless we become conscious of this overlay, we mistake our interpretations, our automatic vision, for the truth. That’s what the quote is drawing our attention to – that filter, which is often called “projection.”

Our individual filters are made up of many things, but primarily it is our own subconscious belief system and network of emotional pain. When we were very young and learning how to navigate the world as children, we learned how to earn love, acceptance, safety, and how to avoid pain. We collected a set of emotionally charged experiences that formed and shaped how we see the world and how we live in it. Our childhood minds developed a kind of rule book for what is good, what is bad, what is scary, what’s allowed and what’s not, and what we must do or be in order to get what we want.

These set of beliefs we formed in childhood, created in a very innocent mind, are often false and misleading. And yet, this system of beliefs, this filter, continues to govern our adult lives. We live our adult lives guided and informed by the rules we created as infants and toddlers. (Sounds bizarre, right?)

When we begin doing some discovery and inquiry work, we begin to root out some of these beliefs, and bring them up into conscious awareness. It’s then that we begin to really understand how silly they are and how unreliably they guide us. Then we can begin the work of consciously changing those beliefs and growing in psychological maturity. 

So back to the quote, when we look at an inkblot or a piece of art, let’s say, what we see, how we interpret the object, comes from deep within our subconscious minds and into conscious thought through these filters. That’s why people see different things and react in different ways to art. They are projecting their own selves, their own psychology, onto the external object. They are seeing it through their own filters. This happens with everything – politics, movies, books, our personal interactions, and all the other things we observe in our external world. 

When we look at an interpersonal situation, especially one that triggers a strong emotional reaction, we are seeing something in the situation that is reflecting for us an issue in our subconscious belief system. Our filter or lens overlays our wounds, our pain, our complex emotional outputs, onto the situation. We are not seeing what’s there, we are seeing what our filters tell us is there!

In truth, what we are really seeing “out there,” is ourselves. 

If we take a small step back from the external situation, and bring awareness to what we are seeing (our interpretation of the situation and how it makes us feel), we can often find the root of the situation within ourselves.

In this way, by understanding how this mechanism works and practicing this kind of awareness, we begin making our projection conscious, and we begin taking responsibility for our filters and bias.

Then as we begin resolving our own reactions, we can look at the original external situation again and see it with greater clarity of vision. We can see greater truth, in a more neutral and prudent way, than what our filters first showed us. Upon this second look, the situation will appear entirely different than it did initially, and our reactions to it will be different as well.  

Nowhere is this dynamic (and all of its pitfalls) more evident than in the drama of romantic relationships, which is why practicing conscious awareness is so important.

Romantic partners are some of our greatest mirrors, because in looking at them and all of the conflicts they produce, we get to project so much of ourselves. And in order to really work on healthy relating, in order to see them and our conflicts clearly, we have to become aware of what we are projecting or overlaying onto our partners. 

I came across this article yesterday that shows how this works in the mother/son dynamic, and how the son projects his beliefs and experiences onto his romantic partner. It offers some great insights.

No matter how good, or loving, or well-intentioned our parents or caretakers were, they saddled us with a lot of their own patterns and beliefs. As very young and impressionable children, living with them, we saw what was happening emotionally, we absorbed their dynamics, and we made decisions and conclusions, based on all the different relationships at home. (This is magnified exponentially in dysfunctional and traumatic experiences).

By the strange mystery of life, we then grow up and most often choose romantic partners who seem to replay those dynamics for us. 

For example, if we had a sweet, loving, caring mother who used guilt and shame to control us, then we end up picking a partner who seems to do the same thing again. (This isn’t always evident on the surface, but when we look at the emotional signature of the relationship and the content of the triggers, we often find precisely this sort of replay.)

Before we can begin to address what our partner is doing/not doing in the relationship, we first have to take stock of our projections. Meaning, are we seeing reality clearly, or are we seeing it only through our automatic filters?We have to investigate whether it is their actions that are at issue, or whether it is our projections that make us feel this way. 

We might think of it this way – our partner’s actions are the inkblot, and our interpretations of them come from within our subconscious mind.

In a more complex example, if you had a mother, for instance, who was submissive in relation to your father and seemed to suffer from her submissiveness, you may have decided as a child to never allow yourself to be controlled, or to be seemingly powerless, like she was. That belief and fear will force you to become subtly defiant and resistant in your romantic dynamic. In small ways, you will keep trying to let your partner know that you are in charge; you will not be controlled. Your partner may be offering you helpful suggestions, or may be lovingly showing you a difficult truth, but your super-sensitivity to being controlled (and fear of being submissive) makes you push back and blame them for being just like your father.

But what you perceive as attempts at control from your partner may not be that at all. It may be your own filter, your own psychological patterning or conditioning, that interprets your partner’s actions that way. You end up reacting to an illusion, creating a conflict and blaming your partner, needlessly. 

Mature healthy relationships then require both partners to take this kind of emotional responsibility, to do this kind of inner work, so that the relationship can be navigated justly and peacefully. 

What I described above is relatively basic psychology, so why are we talking about it here, in the context of spirituality? 

First, because a healthy spirituality must necessarily travel through the path of psychological health and maturation. There is no other way. And second, because the work of awareness and self-discovery requires that we become aware of all of our projections. 

Understanding and mastering this process lies at the heart of all mature spiritual traditions, and many of the more advanced practices build on this foundation. In fact, the entire external world that we see, and all of the reflections it offers us, are of paramount importance to deeper levels of spiritual evolution. In order to authentically love the world, we must understand its mirroring service.

The relationships that are most difficult, most trying, most emotionally painful, are the ones that are our greatest teachers.

This is not to say that we should tolerate any sort of abuse or disrespect. But rather, instead of always blaming “them,” or trying to change them, the wiser thing to do is to go inside and investigate what inside of us is reacting to them.

What patterns or dynamics (always from childhood) are they bringing to the surface for us to see?

This is what Ram Das means when he says we are all just walking each other home. We are all serving as mirrors for each other, so we can work on our own awareness and healing, and get closer and closer to love.