Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Monday, March 24, 2014
“Give me some space.” The request starts small, can quickly escalate, burdened as it is with the emotional weight of feeling trapped, harried and closed in. At any given time in our lives, many of us have uttered the phrase, or wanted to, or heard it from another. Often, though not always, the accompanying response was filled with its own share of hurt feelings, remorse for projected wrong-doing and concern over what it meant for the relationship in question. The desire within the request and the emotional responses tied to it are all predicated on the belief that walls are coming up, boundaries are being established. These lines of demarcation delineate between “I” and “you,” and socially between “us” and them,” though in both cases are considered uncrossable, certainly they are felt as such. Feelings of being cut off, cast out, and set aside, hit like a knife to the flesh.
Speaking of flesh, our bodies provide our initial foray into the setting of boundaries. One of the initial developmental stages is a recognition between infant and caregiver, one in which we begin to think of the world and everything in it as being “out there,” and our self as being “within” the skin. While this is a needed separation for biologically relating to other objects, we’d certainly have a hard time talking with others or even of tying our shoes if we didn’t have a means of differentiating, these initial experiences of establishing boundaries can result in unnecessary hurt and misunderstanding later in life. They give a false impression about what is entailed in living our lives.
The false impression is one of impregnability. Walls as high as the sky and thick as steel, only letting things in that we want, only being effected by what we choose to let effect us. Then we get surprised when people continue to be able to hurt us, when we still react to memories inspired by sights and smells, when we find ourselves engaging in behavior that always in the past helped us move forward but is no longer as powerful. Keeping the demons at bay, we come to find that our walls are not as solid as we hoped and then, still believing they should be, castigate ourselves upon the altar of false belief concerning our autonomy.
Rather than walls, boundaries can be considered more like sponges. If it’s initially easier, consider your own skin. There are actually individual cells that pick up heat, cold and pressure. The cells are microscopic so we can’t tell the difference, but with a small enough pin we could poke and feel only heat and not pressure or vice versa. In addition, the strength of the experience is based on longevity and intensity. We can get used to higher temperatures if gradually increased rather than blasted upon us, in much the same way as pressure works. Our skin also absorbs water, though after a time gets a prune-like appearance once saturated. Hence a sponge. There’s only so much that a sponge, like the skin, can take in before it hits a point of saturation. At which point, something must change.
Notice here the phrase “take in,” it’s very deliberate. Just as a sponge will become heavier when soaking up water, so any clear differentiation between the sponge and the water is lost. Where does one start and the other begin? In the felt experience of everyday life, the lingering effect of the pain lasts far longer than the object of its causation. For that matter, in sharp trauma, the removal of the object having pierced the skin must be removed carefully else could cause even more damage. There is no movie magic to rely on here. We can no more separate ourselves completely from the world than we can declare any particular situation will have only the effect we desire. We take in, reach a point of saturation, then something happens, whether that be an action on our part or a shift from the other.
Not to paint only a picture of suffering, the same holds true of pleasurable experiences. Even the most sociable of people will eventually become overwhelmed by too many people. Bingeing on sweets eventually leads to stomach pain. More benignly, we can hear something a hundred times and only truly take it in once or see ourselves for the first time and notice a change. Everything from sex to exercise has a point of saturation. We take in only so much before something has to change. Training helps, hence why star athletes can do more than the average person and how drug use, of any kind, has issues of tolerance attached to it. Some people have an innate higher tolerance than others, though unfortunately it’s impossible to know ahead of time. A roll of the sponge-dice as it were. As it is with drugs and other experiences, so it is with relationships and their emotional carry-ons. We may be in awe of how someone could come out of a particular experience and go on with their life, never knowing that that the very same person could go through something you did and never recover.
Knowing our boundaries are like sponges helps us consider the situations we engage in, in a new light. Gone is the hubris of not being effected, gone is the grounds for mentally berating yourself when still reacting to a co-worker, former lover, family member, or anyone else who inspired a hurt or pleasure. We are all, every one of us, living in an inter-connected and therefore interwoven world, where there are no clear lines between “I” and “you,” “us” and “them.” Our sponge-like boundaries may not feel as safe as the walls did, but the walls never existed anyway. The greatest expression of our humanity exists not in our separation, but in how we move and breath within the world of permeable selves.
© David Teachout
Friday, March 7, 2014
A new experience beckons, we look forward with trepidation and at times alarm or eager anticipation and always with the mentality that "I' will select the behavior best suited to highlight how incredible we simply know we are. On the other side of the experience, frustration ensues at why we didn't say just that very thing we now know we should have, why we behaved in just the wrong way and how clearly the impression left was one of misfit rather than one inspiring social esteem. Does this sound at all familiar? Simpler examples abound. That moment when we find ourselves saying or doing things we didn't think we'd do or even swore we wouldn't; those social faux paus's like a gaseous expulsion at a funeral.
Yet with all of these instances of social lack of control, we rarely find ourselves burdened by doubt concerning the seamless quality of our lives. Our internal narratives string along event after event into a wrinkle-less whole, rationalizing and justifying every instance of "good" and "bad" behavior, offering up on a platter of literary brilliance the holism of our lives. This holistic feel allows for notions of authenticity, where a person adheres to their “real” or “core” self; this feel also allows for judgment, legal and moral, when a behavior is noted as being outside social standards or that favorite of political pundits, hypocrisy; that feel provides continuity to our lives, as we are able to look back and get a sense of both where we came from, where we currently are and project into the future the fantasies of where we’d like to be.
This sense of being-ness, the psychological root of metaphysics, is not without difficulty. As noted above there are moments when we find ourselves doing or having done something that didn’t “feel” like ourselves, where we offer declarations of “this isn’t what I wanted to do.” Yet there exists a niggling doubt, a thread of anxiety concerning whether we did in fact “want” to do that very thing. Unless at that moment we are willing to believe an external agency took our bodies over and manipulated our actions, then the only person in charge was “I.”
Note here the existence of a separation of two influences and their location. When we discuss matters of free will we often talk as if the “I” is an external being, picking and choosing among disparate actions, uninfluenced by so-called physical variables. However, when something occurs for which we feel a disconnect or dissociation we then inquire as if the “I” is an internal being that was overpowered by external variables. Perspective shifts the location of the “I,” and this occurs without a pause in our collective considerations for the repercussions.
Let’s look at this differently. Bring to mind a person who, upon imbibing a chemical substance, whether of the social lubricating variety or of the blindly-accepted pharmacological variety, behaves differently. Often the situation is narrated as the person feeling “true” or connected with “who they really are.” Leaving aside that an external variable, the chemical, shifted dramatically what was supposedly an external and non-contextual “I,” think for a moment what those changes have manifested in interconnected relationships. If the previous set of behavior had continued, there’d have been reactions to it that are different than the reactions to the behavior post-chemical, precisely because they’re different. This would have resulted in a different relationship dynamic, offering up a different space for the manifestation of different behavior and so on. More simply, imagine for a moment what would happen if you acted the exact same way at home as you did at work, or at work the exact same way as out with friends. The repercussions are legion and fundamentally the only difference between a chemical and a variation in social situation, is the verbiage in description. They are both simply variables in the singularity that is reality. One is not more or less natural than the other, one is not fundamentally any different in kind. Yet, the story told of the pharmacology is that we find our “true” self and when alcohol is involved we tell the story that it was like being someone else.
Pause for a moment and consider each and every variable as equal to one another, not necessarily in strength but in kind. Familial background, genetic history, social class and the accompanying philosophies, these and many others all have variations in strength concerning influence on any life but are still fundamentally variables as such. With this in mind, begin taking away one of them at a time, starting small with a single social connection like the bus-driver who helps you get to work and then progressively bigger variables. See the ripples each one disappearing has on the story you create.
As Bruce Hood, in The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Reality, states: "You only exist as a pattern made up of all the others things in your life that shape you. If you take each away, “you” would eventually cease to exist. This does not mean that you do not exist at all, but rather that you exist as a combination of all the others who complete your sense of self. These are the memories and experiences that shape you. The problem, as we have seen, however, is that these memories are not always that reliable and so the self that is constructed is not necessarily an accurate or consistent version.”
See what has happened here. When it is noted first that ego is a point of reference, we can see why perspective will shift the location of that very ego or “I.” When it is further noted that each and every variable is fundamentally of the same kind in a singular universe, then that “I” ceases to be an external director selecting potential actions to complete. Instead, the “I” is an internal construction, a locus at the intersection of a virtually infinite set of variables, all coalescing into a seemingly seamless self-narrative because it is the story that is being consciously held not the variables separately themselves.
The power of perspective, of conscious intention and attention, is bound in this realization: the self is a construct, one that is constantly evolving. Like offshoots in a genetic line that may find ground to grow and others die off, so the self has its own tendrils, manifesting as behavior we either declare is in line with the “true” or something other. Confusion here results only if the “self” is a director. If considered as a construct, no less powerful or meaningful, then everything we do is us and the potential for change is as enormous as there are variables in the universe. When we contemplate our stories and find ourselves in a moment of self-castigation or doubt or shame or judgment upon others, remembering the ebb and flow of that construct of variables brings both freedom and an increase in empathic understanding.
© David Teachout
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Determining whether one is "in" a relationship seems like a culturally constructed form of self-torture. When a teenager it was all anyone wanted to know, from the moment words escaped one's mouth in close proximity to someone else of which some form of interest could be projectively identified. Lest anyone think such antics are grown out of, the adult world is filled with opportunities to ask the question, albeit in ways that are at times more subtle, but no less personally invasive. There's an entire holiday devoted to anxiety-filled, wallet-destroying, emotionally-pressured declarations of being "in" a relationship. This latter is felt to be so pernicious by some that the overt denial of it with various forms of vitriol and declarations of its historical inauthenticity has become its own powerful meme, a status symbol in its own right as a counter-culture badge.
While clearly the nature of the question is obsessively focused on a particular form of relationship, that of the romantic, this myopic dedication hides a broader reality: we all, every one of us, are in a relationship each and every moment of every day for the entirety of our lives. Further, not only are we in relationship, the very nature of our being is such that there would be no "I" without that foundation of relationship. This truly cannot be overstated and the power of it is easily overlooked due to its unconscious acceptance. Our relational reality is like gravity, so pervasive, so utterly necessary for life as we know it, that the sheer enormity of it is hidden from us even as it guides and pulls every manifestation of our behavior. In fact, our brains seem to be hard-wired to conceal this metaphysical reality through the narrative construction of a central "I."
Like figuring out a magician's trick, seeing the truth here requires directing one's attention away from what is flashy. We tell stories and the "I" of our narratives, what we conceptualize as ourselves, moves along as the fulcrum of whatever is occurring. While much is said about narcissism being harmful and dismissive of others, there is a baseline quality to our developing narratives that is inevitably this very thing. One of the reasons why we're so terrible at making rational decisions, particularly as it relates to statistical analysis, is we can't remove the ego-focus from which all thinking is directed.
Psychologists call these patterns heuristics, models of thinking that guide the formation of our narratives from amidst the gluttony of facts constantly impinging upon us. In the year after the attacks in the United States of 9/11, people in fear for their lives over possible airplane attacks took to the streets in their vehicles. This infusion of steel-encased fear resulted in a statistical uptick of traffic deaths above the average that actually was six times more than the number of those who died in the planes in the attack. The "example rule" heuristic, that situations are more prevalent if they can be immediately recalled, here resulted in needless suffering and yet not a single person thought at the time they were acting in anything other than their best interests. The grand "I" hiding from a world of interconnection was triumphant.
Not nearly so melodramatic, further examples abound in our everyday lives. Every wrong turn, miscommunication, dismissal of another's behavior as being emotionalistic or foolish, disregard for another's suffering through addiction, loss and anxiety, are all predicated upon the belief in the "I" of the billiard ball being directed as the consciousness of the cue-stick. In each instance there is a lapse in the acknowledgment of our relational foundations. That it happens so often only helps hide the deeper reality further. As a person in a desert, the notion of there being water underneath his feet is flung aside with every chapped breath.
Ponder for a moment, utilizing the focusing power of our consciousness, how each and every thing we do and think is tied to a virtually infinite number of variables. Every thought that rises to consciousness is itself a result of underlying unconscious connections, neurons working in parallel making connections with one another in patterns utterly stunning in their complexity. The very ability for you to be reading this requires a sea of technological, social, biological and cultural components coming together in just such a way to provide the space for you to narcissistically believe the story of your life flows only through you. In so doing, we miss that the story could not, would not, ever be possible without the thousands of millions of people stretching out into the socio-genetic panorama of human civilization.
Every day we are "in" relationship. Every moment of our lives we are "in" connection with those seen and unseen. No breath we take, no action we call our own, no thought or emotion we experience, is separate from the nearly infinite interlocking lattice-work of our relational reality. We may need the "I" to tell our stories, but let us reaffirm in conscious appraisal the enormity of the ripples coalescing into and spreading again out from each one of us.
© David Teachout