There were a number of people at my friend’s barbecue. One was an old classmate wearing a hat. He greeted me with a firm handshake. Then he glanced at my hat and chuckled in that tone of knowing. 

“I see you’re hiding your bald spot!” He pointed to his hat. “Me too.”  

I smiled and laughed. “Actually, I’m protecting myself from sunburn. I’ve burned the top of my head a couple of times and it’s really painful. Being bald doesn’t bother me too much—I like to think it makes me look more like Brad Pitt.” 

It was perfect example of projection. My classmate had a belief about being bald and wearing a hat, based on his personal experience with his own baldness and hat wearing, and he imagined that other bald men with hats had the same feelings and made the same decisions in response to their baldness.  

This particular projection caused no harm to anyone, but projection in general often leads to strange and unnecessary conflicts in human affairs.

People see a man with a beard who looks like Fidel Castro and they make assumptions about his political ideology. Others see a woman in a mini-skirt and they make assumptions about her sexual behavior.

I remember one time when I accidentally stepped on another player’s toe in a soccer match. He almost threw a punch at me: “You son of a bitch!” 

I had a difficult time convincing him that I was just clumsy. He was convinced that I had done it on purpose. Perhaps someone in the past had intentionally stamped on his toe, and now he held the belief that all toe-stepping was a personal attack.  

Such projections shape our lives every day. Our subconscious holds countless hidden beliefs about all sorts of events, situations, and people. These beliefs cause us to misread and misinterpret much if not most of what we experience in our daily lives. We see things that aren’t there. We live, really and truly, in a giant illusion, but we don’t recognize it as such. 

To live otherwise demands work. We need to dig through the boxes of beliefs in the basement of our subconscious and examine their contents. Not what-we-think-we-believe, and not what-we-would-like-to-believe, but what we really believe. Then we need to decide what to keep and what to throw away.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. Many of our beliefs have been shaped by forgotten childhood experiences, prior to the development of explicit memory, or at the very least, prior to the development of our capacity to reason things out for ourselves. Others come from unconscious assimilation of messages in music, film, and television. Some of the worst come from orthodox religious teachings foisted on us in childhood, promoting values that were relevant when pharaohs and goatherders ruled the world.

Ultimately, our projections tell us little or nothing about our external world and everything about ourselves, and very often, the culture that we grew up in. My guru used to say that when we point at someone, three fingers point back at us. This is something to remember the next time we find ourselves judging the appearance or behavior of a partner, friend, colleague, or neighbor.   

Our projections cause a lot of unnecessary problems. If we want to experience greater harmony and peace in our lives, it’s important to become proficient in recognizing and reading our own projection process. Otherwise we’re living in illusions.  

 © James Andrew Grove

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