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Intermediate steps to non-separation Barry Magid October 30th 2021

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The story is told that when a great Indian guru was asked by one of his disciples, Master, how should we treat others? The guru replied, There are no others. As with many such pronouncements, one is inclined to ask, are there any intermediate steps? For as much as we might admire or even be swept away by the vision of “There are no others,” it’s not something we can practice with. It’s either a realization that you have or you don’t, and if you don’t, what are you supposed to do?

You can be devoted in your sitting trying to bring about that realization, but in the meantime, how should you treat others? At the psychological level, sometimes we think that empathy is the intermediate step, but that’s often misunderstood. Very commonly people assume that empathy means feeling or trying to feel what the other person feels. It’s a kind of exercise in oneness at the psychological level, of finding some way to enter into the feeling state of the other person, to feel happy when they’re happy, sad when they’re sad, and so forth.

But empathy, at least in the psychoanalytical tradition of Heinz Kohut, meant something more specific and rather different. Rather than being based on an exercise in sameness, empathy meant being acutely aware and investigating difference, and in recognizing the other person had a distinct different point of view, that they came from a whole other world, a whole other background, and that their life and conditioning and culture may be very different from anything you’ve encountered.

And so rather than trying to leapfrog that difference into the oneness of, I can feel just what you’re feeling, for Kohut, empathy meant the slow, meticulous investigation of that other person’s point of view, and it meant really taking difference seriously, and assuming that seeing from the other person’s point of view was something that was the fruit of a long difficult process.

In our practice, we encounter the notion of non-separation or oneness in lots of different guises, and we can be somewhat mystified by them in the sense of thinking that Yes, of course, that’s the deeper underlying truth of life, and if only I could achieve that, everything would be all right. But it leaves us in a kind of muddle about what to do in the meantime. It also leaves us in a kind of helpless position in regard to those who claim to have achieved such a state, and one of the problems with the omniscient teacher model is that sense of, well, the teacher experiences everything from the point of view of non-separation, so how can someone who has not achieved that possibly argue with it, or how could they possibly be wrong?

Now, there are actually distinctly different versions of what oneness means in different traditions, and in the case of the guru, saying there are no others, can mean slightly different things, and I don’t know what he meant by it, but what kind of oneness do we think that is describing? It can be an erasure of all difference, a sense that there is no separation between me and you and me and the world, but what does that actually consist of? How does that play out?

As opposed to a vision of oneness that implies no difference, we can also have a vision of oneness defined by interconnection or interdependency, in which everything is different but occupies its place within the whole. There we often get the image of the one body. If we imagine that we are all part of one body, then the idea is that of course we all have our own different natures and functions, and oneness doesn’t mean that I’m the same as you at all. It means that our differences all add up or hang together to create a kind of functioning or harmonious whole that we might be unaware of. So in that model, I’m a kidney and you’re a spleen, because, you know, we all work together to allow the body to live and function.

Now that metaphor of the one body itself can go in a few different directions. Certainly we can ask whether the body is healthy or sick. Perhaps we would say that when we all know that we’re part of one body we’re going to function in the service of the whole rather than in terms of our individual self interest. And there, that kind of functioning is something that needs to be achieved or can be improved upon, or that can go awry.

But we can also have a picture of the one body that doesn’t depend on our understanding at all. You can see that for instance in such seemingly different characters as Walt Whitman and Adam Smith. Whitman celebrates the one body of life that is exuberant and vital and carrying itself forward regardless of whether we are aware of our participation in it. Everything is already blooming and flourishing, and we are all leaves of grass in this great big picture of life, doing just what we do. We occupy that.

As for Adam Smith, not somebody you’d normally think of in a lecture of oneness, his picture of the market was a picture of one body. He said that everybody simply going about their own business, pursuing their self interest, as hard and best they can, just trying to make a profit for themselves, all those people together add up and create a market. And the remarkable thing that Smith proposed was that the sum of all these people desperately seeking to outdo the other and be competitive, added up inadvertently and unconsciously to this whole that we call the free market, and everybody doing their own thing creates one body. So that's a picture of the spleen just doing what it’s doing, the kidney just doing what it’s doing. They're completely oblivious of their role in the whole, but just because of who and what they are they hang together.

You see that in Bucky Fuller’s constructions where he would have arrangements of sticks and wires in such a way that they fell away from each other into a whole that was held in place by the tension of each one falling, as it would naturally. I forget his name for that – tensegrity or something like that. Anyway we can say that the Walt Whitman - Adam Smith model of the one body is a little bit like what we hear in the Sandokai, where it says, If you do not see the way, you do not see it even as you walk on it. In a way, it is the one body that preexists our awareness of it, and whether we see it or not, we’re already part of it.

You can say that a less seemingly mystical perspective is something like emptiness and interdependence, about how the world is, whether we see it or not, the way gravity doesn’t depend on your knowing about it or not. The world’s just going to operate that way and you’re part of that. The world is already constructed to be this whole, and you have your part in it whether you see it or not.

We could return to this issue of the one body in thinking about the question: Is there a way for it to be healthier or sicker depending on our awareness? That’s a different kind of perspective, and it has something to do with how we think about relationships. What does it mean for them to go well or badly? Is there something we can do to make them go well and what is it we mean by them going well?

See, in our version of interconnectedness we could also use Hegel’s maxim: I can’t be myself by myself. There it means that for me to be fully who I am, I need to be connected and plugged in to others and/or to a whole. In a certain sense that means you don’t see any kidneys walking around on their own. You don’t find any spleens just setting up shop independent of the rest of the body. To be a spleen is to be connected to a body and you can’t be a spleen unless you're a part of something else. It can’t survive on its own. So that’s one way of thinking about it.

Another version of that is: What does it mean to develop, in an Aristotelian sense, our own virtues or capacities. Aristotle said, To be fully human, to develop all our capacities, we need to be part of a society, that you can’t develop certain skills or capacities unless you’re always interacting with and bumping up against other people and you’re given the opportunity to practice certain things. An obvious kind of example like that is: You can’t learn to become a good parent unless you have children. Parenting isn’t a skill you can develop privately and on your own. Parenting, however you think about it, is a sense of capacities that you learn and develop in the process of raising your child. And there we probably would say, Yes, that’s something you can do well or badly.

From one point of view, you can say, once you have a child, you can’t help but be a parent. You’re put into this role and you will be parenting regardless of what you do. You are simply thrown into that relationship and you can’t deny it or get rid of it or make it any more or less than it already is. It’s simply a relation, but again, we can say, well, maybe that can be done well or badly.

Now some of this is a roundabout way of introducing Joko’s chapter we’ll be discussing later, where she takes a perspective on one dimension of relationship, which is all about the frustration of our individual likes and dislikes. She says that everybody wants a relationship to be a featherbed, something in which they’ll be comfortable, and the practice lesson is to realize that that’s just crazy. No one else can be our featherbed, and I believe she even uses the example of parenting and says, It’s really a war and you find yourself constantly at odds with the other, with the child, and so this is a very real dimension of what we can bump into if we come to a relationship or parenting feeling completely separate, just wanting to get my needs met, just wanting for me to be comfortable, and the other person is seen exclusively in terms of Are they meeting or frustrating my expectation?

Jessica Benjamin has written about the impasse that can arise between the mother and a child when the experience of their needs are in opposition. And that’s the scenario where the mother feels that the child is simply draining all the life out of her. The mother feels totally exhausted and feels that the child is helpless but insatiable. And the child, if its insatiable needs are met, will be like a little vampire that drains the mother dry, whereas if the mother gets the sleep and rest that she needs and tries to have a life, tries to have a relationship with her partner, tries, in another words, to have needs of her own, the baby will be neglected. And in the worst case the baby will die.

Jessica has called that scenario Only one can live. It’s a kind of unconscious fantasy that is very easy to fall into, that essentially describes something like what Joko is portraying about relationships, that we simply are at odds with each other, There are my expectations and your expectations and either somebody totally submits and is unhappy or we’re just going to endlessly clash. So there’s this potential dysfunction around the notion of separation, of needs.

Jessica Benjamin’s work is about resolving that impasse around separation seen as opposition or competition, but it is not resolved through oneness. It’s resolved through We-ness, which is very different. It’s not a matter of the mother identifying totally with the baby. Rather, it’s the mother being able to see herself and the baby as part of a functioning whole, a being that has its own needs. The We needs the mother to get a certain amount of sleep. The We needs the baby to get a certain amount of milk. Those two things have to come to some kind of balance in order for the We to survive. It can be done well or it can be done badly. But it is a way in which we achieve a kind of interconnection that isn’t based simply on non-separation. So I think I’ll leave that there and perhaps we can continue that line of thinking when we discuss Joko’s chapter.

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