Saturday, November 28, 2009

I Am Not You

Psychologists who work in the realm of object relations tell us that infants initially view their mothers as extensions of their own physical body. When an infant is hungry and cries, he or she has the impression that they create the breast or bottle that suddenly arrives to feed them. There must be an omnipotent sense that the self or ego includes all things in the visible universe; we are truly one with everything because we perceive that we are everything.

Then disaster strikes. As the child's brain continues to develop, this perception that "mother and I are one" begins to deteriorate until the truth - that there are two separate beings - is finally seen as the reality of things.
Perhaps this is where we get the myth of the Garden of Eden - from a time when we lived in a paradise of bliss and plenty before the knowledge of separateness destroyed it all.

I believe that, for most of us, this separation wound never fully heals. For the rest of our lives, we are searching for the perfection that we felt in that "pre-anxious state," as Mark Epstein has labeled it. (His books are must-reads for anyone interested in the interface of western psychology and the Buddha's teachings.) We never seem to get ourselves back to the Garden, no matter how hard we try.

And oh, how we try. Our adolescent and adult relationships are manifestations of this unconscious attempt to merge again with the mother. Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein theorized that we are born with a fear of annihilation, and the separation wound only serves to validate that fear. Forming attachments with other people is one way that we have developed to ease this existential anxiety. We can't help it, really. It is a compelling, life-long drive to seek security. We feel that without these attachments, we will die.

What this brings about, of course, is a world in which everyone thinks they are everyone else. Look how accurately we think we can read another person's mind, or how we make so many incorrect assumptions about other people's behavior. We see everyone else as extensions of ourselves, and since this satisfies our deepest, oldest desire (to be one with the mother), we firmly believe that this is the way the world works.

To live in this kind of attachment with another person is like two sailboats trying to make way, each attached to the other by a very short line. The vagaries of the wind and sea, and the individuality of the sailors, will mean that one boat will set its sails differently from the other. Eventually, they will either pull each other apart, get swamped through an imbalance of forces, or collide with each other. In any case,
the chances of a smooth journey for these two craft is limited at best, and impossible over the long haul.

The answer is obvious: release the line. This way, the two boats can sail in formation with one another, sharing the journey together, but safe from devastating entanglement.

Simple as it may seem, this course of action is counter-intuitive to most people. Because of the primary wound, it would seem that decoupling will invite abandonment and death. The reality is exactly the opposite: releasing invites life and space and breath into the relationship, instead of being ensnared by old habit patterns and reactive behavior.

Releasing attachment in this way does not mean that anything goes in the relationship. Nor does it mean that our love or caring for another person diminishes. On the contrary, it allows us to let go of suffocating expectations of perfection that can never be met by another person. The mature sense of security that releasing the tight fist of attachment brings, is a moment of true bliss and freedom.

From Rumi:
This is love:
to fly toward a secret sky,
to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment.
First to let go of life.
Finally, to take a step without feet.

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