Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Deep Waters

No wonder, then, if these waters be so deep, that we hover over them with a religious regard.

There is a gloom in deep love as in deep water; there is a silence in it which suspends the foot; and the folded arms, and the dejected head are the images it reflects. No voice shakes its surface; the Muses themselves approach it with a tardy and a timid step, and with a low and tremulous and melancholy song.


Today my friend George told me about something that had happened to him when he was a boy swimming at the beach many years ago... 

He and his friends were getting ready to go home when one of his friends started calling “Help!  Help!”  George thought he was joking- he was always teasing like that- and kept heading for the shore.  But the cries persisted and soon they sounded more like gurgling as his friend went under water.  George started swimming out toward his friend.  The sands were shifting underfoot and suddenly an undertow tugged at him and he was pulled down hard.  George went under but he kept swimming out to his friend.  When he finally reached him, George’s friend grabbed him, pushing him under to get his own head above the water so he could breathe.  George was submerged.  He started drowning…

George had basic trust.  He responded by putting his own life aside to show up for his friend.  He trusted that this was the thing to do.

Trust is the basis of altruism, our ability to surrender ourselves to be unconditionally present for another.  The word "trust" shares the same root as the word "truth".  It refers to something faithful, reliable and true.

When asked what was going through his mind, a hero will often say, “Nothing.  I thought of nothing.  I just acted”.  There was no thought of consequences, no choice to act or not to act, no sense of obligation telling him what to do.  There was just the jumping in.  Jumping into deep waters.


It doesn’t take compassion.  It takes being strong enough to set oneself aside, letting go of worrying about oneself to be there for someone else.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

no common ground

I haven’t been taking my own advice.  When dealing with situations that feel harmful, I always say, rather than trying to change the other or others involved, get out of the way yourself.  This is the quickest way to put an end to a bad situation, since the other guy may not see it as you do, or he might ignore your entreaties to stop doing whatever it is you don’t like.  (He has the right to.)

Since the only person you can change is yourself, I always say: Leave.

I still think this is good advice.

But I haven’t been applying it.  That’s because I’ve failed to consider that we sometimes cannot see when a situation is harmful.   Even if we’ve been unhappy, or complaining, trying to resolve conflict or trying to get others to resolve it, we may have never really seen the situation as harmful. 

There are times when we perceive a situation as intrinsically inescapable.

This could be a result of learned helplessness, codependency, enmeshment, and the like.  But it might also be from the inability to see oneself as a victim or outsider.

If the other is family, or a colleague or a friend, if I belong to the same group as him, even if I belong only marginally, I may not see him as “other”, or as different enough from me to warrant saying “No”.  It’s not that I am in a psychologically fused state.  I just see us as on the same team, and stick it out even when there are problems.  I may be pathologically trusting.

If I am to step out of a situation that is harmful to me, I have to step into that place where I no longer have anything in common with you, that area beyond the margins, where my difference lies.  If I have been the family or work scapegoat, though I may have been seen by you as different for a long time, I may not have seen myself this way. 

When a situation is harmful to me, but nobody but me wants to change it, it is time to see my difference and assume it.  Be other, and get out.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

striving on and non

There was no trace of seeking, desiring, imitating, or striving, only light and peace
~ Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

Don’t just do something, sit there!
~ Sylvia Boorstein, in her book by the same name

Many people come into my office feeling despondent for reasons they do not immediately recognize.  Then they uncover a connection to having been bullied by parents, partners or employers, at work, in the school yard, at home or, nowadays, online.

Their reaction is usually some combination of feelings of shame, helplessness, anger and despair.  They feel intense frustration and often become rage-filled when recalling how they were stuck in a situation in which they felt hopelessly tormented, diminished and abused.

One young man expressed it like this:
No matter what I did, the bullying would continue.  Day after day after fucking day, they would pick on me.  They would stop for a while, and that would be a blessed reprieve, but then they would start up again.  I never knew why; could never figure it out.  It was random.  Like getting swept up by a wave and being smashed down on the rocks, over and over again.  Whatever I did had no impact whatsoever.
He stopped fighting back, like the dogs in Seligman and Maier’s famous experiments who became limp and unresponsive after being given random shocks that they were unable to escape.  At one point, when they no longer tried to get away but just sat there and whined, the dogs were thought to have “learned” helplessness.  In fact, they had lost their sense of agency, something which would return only after they were physically assisted in moving their bodies.  

Ultimately, agency is about striving, with purpose, toward an end.  It matters not so much to which end.  What matters is the striving.  It says “I am alive”.  Conversely, when whatever I do has no impact, I lose my sense of purpose, of agency.  I cease striving, become “dead”.

In Buddhism, striving is regarded as the result of ignorance and part of the chain reaction that causes suffering.  Awakening leads to Nirvana which extinguishes striving, releasing us from the patterned responses that give us the illusion of freedom but are really a trap.  When we are free, so the theory goes, ignorance is replaced by awareness, striving by non-attachment, and preference by equanimity.

I have long questioned whether this model might be ignoring something fundamental about sentient beings: our innate sense of agency; and whether practice based on this model, rather than extinguishing human suffering, might merely attenuate a sense of aliveness by training in certain types of dissociation, fostering disconnection and detachment from, rather than transcendence of, our human condition. 

Of course the Buddhist practice model is intended to be liberating, and it can be.  Sometimes sitting in quiet attention is very effective in helping us overcome the defensive reactions inhibiting body and mind.  It can arrest the pattern of going for the fix and free the energy locked up in our attachments.  But, for most of the people most of the time, we are not so completely shut down or fixated that the path of renunciation is our only recourse.  In fact, renunciation of striving may be no recourse at all.

Even in Buddhism, the path is often presented as a function of striving: great doubt, great awakening; right intention or resolve, the exertion of our own will to______. [Awaken. Reach enlightenment. What have you.] This striving is an expression of choice, a preference and attachment to a path.

Whether sitting, standing or tied up in a pretzel, at all times, as long as we are on a path by choice, we are always doing something and there will always be agency.  Moreover, anyone that has really experienced the loss of agency and choice, like the young man above, can tell you there is a big difference between choosing to limit your choices on your own, and others eliminating them for you.  In the first, agency is conserved; in the second, it is removed.  But we cannot remove it ourselves.

One would be wise to be skeptical when a spiritual teacher claims that learned helplessness can be undone “by severing our internal connection with the system that gave rise to it”.  Engaging in the process of “severing” connections always involves agency, is an expression of choice, not of freedom from it.