I received a few comments to my previous post, some of them not on this page. What they had in common was the idea that we need others because we love them and needing people was in fact not so bad. In short: we need to need people. I believe that the idea that some degree of dependency in a relationship is OK aside from the cultural underpinning is also backed up by another strong belief: if we don’t need others we will end up being cold-hearted and detached people and that is not an attractive picture. Likewise, if others don’t need us, we will end up lonely and unappreciated.
What about the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela or other individuals who have shown enormous compassion to their fellow humans and do not strike me as cold, detached and non-caring? Nor do they appear(ed) to be lonley and unappreciated. It is easy to think that once we take away our dependency on others, there will be nothing left.
I don’t believe we can actually be independent from others. Quantum physics demonstrates how everything is interconnected and therefore interdependent. The problem is we don’t understand that. I know it on the cognitive level but as soon as somebody does something to me, I forget all that and suddenly there is me, you and others. The idea of a solid self and separation it creates between us and the rest of the world is at the root of our suffering. Yet it seems that having a healthy self is necessary for survival and I am interested in how we can combine those two, strike the balance. I am searching for a tool, a metaphor that would help me work with discovering the impermanence and fluidity of self so that I could apply it in everyday life. On the very down-to-earth level it would simply made it easier to not take things so personally. I might find it skillful to protect myself from the consequences of your actions or mood but I would not have to shut myself down from you as a way to protect myself or punish you. Actually I think I might have found one tool that rubs very well with me but am leaving it aside for now.
If I believe there a solid self I will be upset every time someone else leaves me; I will not really believe in change in myself or others and might even not notice it, walking around with the labels I gave myself and others; I will find it hard to change when I see this is what is needed and will be struggling, exercising violence against the self I think I am; I will find it impossible to love without hurting the relationships by trying to control the people I am in a relationship with. My life will be a constant struggle.
How will I even know I love someone? In my experience my likes and dislikes of someone can change dramatically within a short period of time. Think of someone you loved and then fell out of love with. What happened? Did that person change? Or did your idea of that person change? I share the view that we are in love not with the people but with our representations of the people. When my mental image of that person changes we fall out of love with them. One illusion is being replaced by another. The person is still the same but our idea of the person changed based on how we experienced and interpreted them and their behaviour. It is much easier on my ego to blame the other person for them being this or that way than acknowledging I had the wrong idea about the person. (No idea about that other person can be right or wrong.)
Going back to the idea I-need-him-because-I-like-him. This is a very convenient and well-spread view because it can be used as a justification for our actions. “I love you and therefore I want you close to me”. One woman was telling me she didn’t want her son to leave home because she loved him and wanted him close to her. (At that point the son was 28 and was living with his parents. He didn’t know how to do laundy with a washing machine or make lunch and was terrified of making decisions outside the scope of his comfort zone. He was also one of the most gentlest men I met). The mother didn’t seem to grasp the idea that her son was not her property, a project for giving meaning to her life. She raised him in total dependency, making sure he would be needing her and feeling insecure when faced with life’s reality. Her son had difficulty saying no to her and other people and often would suffered from it consoling himself that he was doing that because he was a “nice guy”. It took us a couple of why-questions to get to the source of him being that “nice”: fear and dependency on others for their approval, very low self-esteem. I was tempted to ask the woman in question what her definition of love was. What I saw was “codependent helping”, as Jack Kornfield calls it in his book “A Path With Heart” and it didn’t do good to any of them since both were living in fear, holding on to something impermanent.
At first I felt I was straying away from the topic of compassion with the last couple of posts but now see that they are all very related: the idea of self, needs, codependence, and compassion. Jack Kornfield beautifully ties them all together in one of the chapters of “A Path with Heart”.
So what would a healthy relationship look like? One of my favourite stories is the one of the Buddha’s dialogue with the family of acrobats in which the acrobats discussed with the Buddha the best way to safeguard and care for each other. It “points out, when we leave ourselves out of the sphere of compassion, a false security or unwise compassion is the result. All unhealthy or overly idealistic generosity arises from this error, when a deep respect for ourselves is left out of the equation. When our sense of self-worth is still low, we cannot set limits, make boundaries, or respect our needs. Our seemingly compassionate assistance becomes mixed with dependence, fear, and insecurity. Mature love and healthy compassion are not dependent but interdependent, born out of deep respect for ourselves and others. They can say yes and they can say no. Like a parent who raised a child wisely, they know when to set limits, when to say no.
… Setting boundaries and limits, shifting from a dependent and entangling love to one based on mutual respect, learning to give while honoring our own needs, all of these can entail a profound growth in self-esteem and self-awareness that parallels the healthy development of self.”
-Jack Kornfield, “A Path With Heart”
So how do I know when I run my own agenda of “codependent helping” and when my actions are driven by compassion?
Actually, Jack Kornfield addresses this issue in his book. One piece of advice comes from Buddha, the cool dude who never took things for granted and recommended that we looked for the motives behind our actions. “It’s too idealistic to expect that we will always just want to be good; we must listen to know when the heart is attached, to know when the heart is afraid, to know when the heart is dependent. By listening deeply we can begin to sort out our dependence from love.
Listening to distinguish wisdom from dependence can be aided by understanding our early history.We can reflect on how needs were met in our family, how limits were set, how insecurity was treated.”
-Jack Kornfield, “A Path With Heart”
I know it will keep me busy for a while, and I’ve already learnt a lot about my own reactive patterns looking back at how those issues were dealt with in the family. Also, becoming aware of my own reactivity made me see my family and each member in a new light. This is where compassion starts for me: I can relate to another person’s suffering because I’ve been there and all of us essentially are driven by the same desire – to be happy, however we define happiness.
This place is a dream.
Only a sleeper considers it real.
Then death comes like dawn,
and you wake up laughing
at what you thought was a grief.
But there is a difference with this dream.
Everything cruel and unconsicous
done in the illusion of the presnt world,
all that does not fade away at the death-waking.
and must be interpereted.
All the mean laughing,
all the quick, sexual wanting,
those torn coats of Joseph,
they change into powerful wolves
that you must face. …
From “The dream that must be interpreted”, Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks