Tuesday, October 27, 2009

“Desire is man’s very essence”
Benedictus de Spinoza (Ethics III, proposition 95)

Contemporary neuroscientific findings confirm both that we are hard-wired like other animals to attach to and care for other members of our species, and that the foundation of human empathy resides in early attachment relationships. Simply put, a child who is held and loved by a mother whose heart connects to his will grow a heart able to connect with others’. He will have also developed, within his brain, the capacity to know another as a real and vital complement to himself. His emotions will reflect this inner wealth and he will seek the world as a place to be nurtured and a place to nurture others.

These findings echo what Spinoza observed three hundred and fifty years ago in his famous Ethics: human beings are naturally inclined toward society and to becoming virtuous citizens[i].

It is not against self-interest, but through our very desire for attachment to others, that we cultivate the emotions that cement reciprocity, friendship and love, the ingredients of an interpersonal ethics of responsibility, compassion and care.

With human psychology providing the basis for love and empathy, morality and religion become superfluous add-ons to a humanistic ethics based in immanence. The conflation of virtue with obedience to a transcendent “good” is at best a back-up plan for an anthropologically-based ethics, a back-up we could surely use in the case of those who require emotionally empty obligations to bind them to others, a chilly duty without which, who knows what they would be capable of.

As Robert Misrahi points out, the foundation of real virtue is no other than human desire itself, not a moral imperative or an applied “pseudo-knowledge of values”[ii]. We are “just” self-centered beings oriented toward others for reasons of survival. Not earth-shattering. Glorious…

[i] See Antonio Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza
[ii] Robert Misrahi Spinoza, editions Médicis-Entrelacs, Paris, 2005, p.97.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

As awake compassion, you experience no separation. You know that the apparent division of experience between "I" and "the world" is a misperception and that even the subtlest sense of superiority is a further delusion.
Ken McLeod

Compassion arises in a context of non-attachment, when we have no expectations of reciprocity and it is not about me. As a therapist, as a mother, or even with a total stranger on the street, it is relatively easy to be compassionate in this way. I have all the power, and nothing is at stake for me personally[1].

But when I am in a friendship or love relationship, there is a me and there is a you. Necessarily, there is duality, because we are rooted in a personal connection. Naturally, these relationships activate attachment needs and all the other stuff that goes along with wanting to transcend separation in an embodied way. This is not to say that each person cannot be compassionately awake to the other; separation need not imply falling asleep, or the will to power. On the contrary, each person in an equal partnership has the ability to be awake. The question is how to be awake and act from a place of attachment at the same time.

Compassion becomes particularly problematic when we are both in pain and when the remedy for my pain is the opposite of yours, when, for example, I need closeness and you need distance. I may respond to your withdrawal with approaching you, but this is because of my own need for closeness. You may respond to my need for closeness with detachment, but this is because of your own need for distance. Neither is a compassionate response to the other but an attachment-based reaction, sometimes even obscured to oneself because of one's feeling compassionate. In fact, each often becomes quite defensive about his or her reaction to the other.

So the question is:
How, from a perspective of non-attachment, do you and I remain awake in relationship?

[1] Martin Buber’s I-Thou relationship is like this. Thou is not an object, but neither is it you per se. It is an aspect of, “the face of”, God.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What is it to fall in love?

A delusion of attachment? The ego grasping like a babe from the womb, reaching out anxiously primed by the presence of the other beyond knowing, activating the life-sustaining startle and arch of human biology. The Moro reflex and will to live.

A spiritual connection? The stirring of the immortal soul implanted in the body’s fertile ground that, upon finding the sun and rain in the face of another, dares to live as a tender shoot in the empirical world.

Self-transcendence? The grace of compassion, the heart of hearts abiding in every man standing at the threshold of emptiness, our sacred inheritance when the space between subject and object collapses into nothing.

And what then, of love?

The reflex calls for maternal care.

The connection dissolves into knowing.

The transcendence cannot sustain itself and loses itself to find itself again and again, as simply nothing.

Qu’est-ce que tomber amoureux?
Un délire d’attachement? L’ego comme un nouveau-né sorti du ventre de sa mère qui s’empoigne anxieusement de l’autre, excité par la présence au-delà du connaître suscitant le sursaut et l’arche de la survie. Le réflexe de Moro et la volonté d’exister.
Un contacte spirituel? L’éveil de l’âme immortelle implantée dans le sol fertile du corps qui, ayant trouvé le soleil et la pluie dans le visage de l’autre, ose percer comme une tendre pousse le monde empirique.
La transcendance? La grâce de la compassion au coeur du coeur sachant demeurer au seuil du néant, notre héritage sacré quand l’espace entre sujet et objet s’effondre.
Et l’amour, alors?
Le réflexe appelle les soins maternels.
Le contacte se dissout dans la connaissance.
La transcendance ne peut se s’alimenter et se perd pour se retrouver encore et encore tout simplement: rien.