There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
-Zora Neale Hurston
Karen sank into the sofa, sighing deeply. Her shoulders slumped down as she looked up. Fixing a determined gaze on me, she announced: “You’re my Buddha.”
I paused, and considered her words: the note of possession. The exclusivity. And finally, the Buddha. The tone of her voice was affectionate, authoritative.
This wasn’t the first time that Karen had proclaimed me her Buddha. In prior sessions she had called me Swami (an honorific that contained, at least for me, latent associations to a charlatan). We had analyzed in the transference her choice of words and her choice of me, a straight-identified Indian-American woman as her therapist. Buddhas were serene, peaceful, sexually removed, wise. Buddhas didn’t deal with the romantic turmoil that plagued mere mortals. After all, the real Buddha himself, Siddhartha Gautama had abandoned his royal post, his wife and son for a life of asceticism. In Karen’s eyes, she was the seeker, and I the found.
As a relational analyst, the exchange inevitably touched on who we are in the room: our race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality. As a professional queer-identified woman of Jewish parentage in her 30’s, Karen experienced an upbringing that intersected with my own in many ways. We were both women raised in upper-middle class homes in suburbia and socialized in a patriarchal culture. However, Karen dealt with bigotry for being both Jewish and queer. Her grandparents were Holocaust survivors. She struggled with issues of sexuality and identity.
My parents were part of a wave of professional immigrants welcomed into the U.S. after implementation of the 1965 Immigration & Nationality Act. The Act abolished the national origins quota system (to no more than 20,000 visas per year from any one country) that had been in place restricting Asian immigration to the U.S. Upon arrival, they like many other immigrants and people of color, were subject to racism and discrimination in their professional and personal lives.
We hailed from cultures that were stereotypically clannish, family oriented, and focused on educational and professional achievement at all costs.
While such common ground was tacitly acknowledged, being a Buddha implied Otherness. My analyst silence deemed wise. My measured response deemed spiritual. The act of holding space in the consulting room deemed holy.
Karen, of course, was commenting on aspects of my personality. In contrast to the decidedly non-Buddha-like women in her life, I embodied an Orientalist trope—an inscrutable, wise, serene therapist residing in the office/dream space: static, frozen, fixed eternally.
As Edward Said notes in Orientalism:
The very possibility of development, transformation, human movement—is denied the Orient and the Oriental. As a known and ultimately an immobilized or unproductive quality, they come to be identified with a bad sort of eternality: hence, when the Orient is being approved, such phrases as “the wisdom of the East.”
As a sign of this supposed wisdom, near my Union Square office, a number of yoga studios have proliferated over the years. The emphasis on “Eastern spirituality,” pseudo or not, is strong. Buddhism is in vogue. Sankskrit words/concepts like karma, dharma, moksha, and samsara trip off the tongue. The message is clear: The East rejects materialism in favor of spirituality, religion, yoga, and self-knowledge/growth. This one-dimensional view did not square with the complexities of the India I knew. As Gita Mehta wryly notes of this exchange between East & West in Karma Cola:
The seduction lay in the chaos. They thought they were simple. We thought they were neon. They thought we were profound. We knew we were provincial. Everybody thought everybody else was ridiculously exotic and everybody got it wrong.
On the other hand, I could not deny that Karen was also commenting on those aspects of me that were essentially unknowable, unreachable. She had repeatedly despaired of the lack of truly being able to “know” me though some self-disclosure had been made over the years we’d been working together. She admittedly worried that one day I would reveal myself to be the “mess” that she knew most women in her life were. That is, emotionally volatile & deceitful. In some ways, unacknowledged, she preferred the racist trope to the sexist. In doing so, she kept safe from those destructive aspects of myself she was afraid to know (one could argue that I was afraid to know) and protected the men (her father) in her life who had failed her. She rendered me a man—A Buddha who had abandoned the material world.
I often wondered if I were not Indian-American, would Karen have called me a Buddha or Swami? Or did my personality, not to mention my profession, make such a comparison inevitable? After all, most people initially found me hard to read. As analysts we are very often more observer than participant, hidden away in asymmetrical relationships. It was hard to tell.
I wondered too, how much I had colluded in this perception. Had I unconsciously adhered to a Buddha-like persona? W.E.B Dubois coined the idea of a “double consciousness,” a term describing the psychological challenge faced by African-Americans ‘of always looking at oneself through the eyes’ of a racist white society and attempting to reconcile their race/ethnicity with an upbringing in a European-dominated society.’ This struggle to deal with a multi-faceted conception of self was something Karen and I undoubtedly shared.
Reflecting on our dyad from a relational standpoint, I noted feeling boxed in—unseen by her comment, as though I was an idea or an ideal that she needed me to be: unchanging and static in my steadiness. A feeling of despair ensued where I imagined never quite being known by her. And I understood that very likely she felt this way in her life—that I, like her primary caregivers, would never quite know or understand her. And she felt boxed in by her need to please and fulfill expectation.
I began to realize that I was not the only Buddha in the room. A Buddha symbolized some shameful aspects in her—static, passive, unchanging, never roused to anger—that Karen had projected onto me.
By opening up the discussion and considering the myriad meanings of a word, the opportunity for greater freedom and spontaneity arose, a welcome and necessary outcome for the both of us.
Tara Chivukula, LCSW, is a graduate of the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis. She is in private practice in New York City.
Double Consciousness. (March 31st, 2016). In Wikipedia: Retrieved: April 23, 2016, from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_consciousness
Mehta, Gita (1979). Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Said, Edward (1978). Orientalism. New York: Random House.
*Names and other details have been changed for reasons of confidentiality.