I met somebody interesting a few weeks before the shutdown—before I holed up at my parents’ house on their rural farm. Hours of FaceTime and hundreds of text messages later, she’s an irresistible mystery I’m dying to figure out in person.
But what’s my crush based on? How much about her has my mind invented? How much have I projected on to her? Probably a ton. Probably so much that I’ll hardly recognize her in “real life.”
Once, at the end of a meditation retreat, the writer and Zen Buddhist teacher Natalie Goldberg told us students, “Watch out. You might think you know each other, but you’re projecting so many things.”
I’d spent that week crushing on one of the retreat center staff members. Everything about Molly added up to perfection. Her sunbaked skin and snow-white teeth. Her glances in the kitchen, which broke the retreat rule of not looking at each other. Her California accent when I broke another rule by striking up a conversation one morning. (There’s actually a name for this instant obsession, the “Meditation Crush,” which Portlandia nailed in this sketch.)
In my head, Molly and I ran off together to buy a cabin in the nearby Sante Fe mountains. But, as I walked away from the retreat center on the last day, Goldberg’s advice came in handy. I’d probably never see Molly again, which hurt—but I knew, in my gut, that I’d fallen for a projection.
Here’s how projection works: “Your brain fill[s] in the gaps in an otherwise incomplete story and the way it does that is through use of your own past history—positive or negative,” writes the psychiatrist Paul Dobransky.
Key words: your own past history. We know ourselves more than anyone else. So, when we meet someone new our brain fills in the gaps based on this self-knowledge. Molly was more than just an attractive face—she was the wild, earthy free spirit that I’d wished I could be.
See, when we’re young, we get messages from parents, teachers, family, and friends that certain things about us are unacceptable, wrong, unworthy. We internalize these messages as shame, which causes us to hide and lose access to parts of ourselves. When we lose access to, say, our joy, we’re bound to idealize others who are unabashedly joyful. When we feel shame about, say, our tendency to get really anxious, we’re easily irritated by other people who get really anxious too.
The other day, I was flipping through one of my favorite books, Pema Chödrön’s Start Where You Are, and saw a note I’d made: “Molly, Sante Fe, May 2016.” Here’s the text beside it:
“Our sense of being defeated means that something got in. Something touched our soft spot. This vulnerability that we’ve kept armored for ages—something touched it. Maybe all that touched it was a butterfly, but we have never been touched there before. It was so tender.”
And that’s the thing. Even if the Molly I fell for was a projection, there’s a reason she got in. There’s a reason I made up the story that I did. And there’s a reason it hurt to let her go.
In other words, whether my pandemic romance turns into something real or not, I’m learning about myself. I’m peering into a mirror who also happens to be using me as a mirror, and we’re both growing together, as long as we stay openhearted—which is the whole point of falling in love in the first place.
I’m a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. If you’d like to work with me on your meditation practice or being more mindful in your life, reach out.
Download my free ebook on starting and sticking with a meditation practice here.