It is said that what sets humans apart from the animals is the ability to self-reflect, to think about ourselves as individuals in relationship to the world, other creatures and life in general. We have certainly spent our history theorizing and philosophizing and asserting this school of thought or that. We (my inquisitive self included) are fascinated by our own reflections.
There seems to be a widening interest in getting beyond mechanistic models of philosophy, in part brought about by cutting-edge physics and a world that is so complex, it is increasingly difficult to keep track of all the causes-and-effects. It is more and more obvious that all of life is a giant field of apparent "parts" that blend and merge in an astonishingly holistic way; our relationship to all of this can no longer be thought of as purely objective or subjective when we affect the whole in the way that we do, while in turn being affected.
Still, there is a "relationship", because of this tendency to think of ourselves as separate. This amazing and beautiful ability has allowed us to reach both creative heights and terrible, destructive depths in our range of being (simply referred to as "good' and "evil"). Never mind why this is; debates always rage on that subject. As a matter of fact, debate rages, in general, about everything in our world.
This stems from taking a personal position of some kind. Nothing wrong with that; we are equipped with the ability to discriminate for security, sensation and power, all wrapped up in survival and decorated with "higher" emotion and purpose. But our self-reflection becomes a hall of mirrors if we are not aware of this process. Practicality gives way to varying degrees of unhealthy thinking and behavior when we spend all day responding to responding, bouncing from one self-idea to another. One minute high, the next low; motivated one day and despondent another. The general belief is that we are victimized by moods, or other people, or circumstance.
I experienced some in-depth learning about this kind of belief-and-behavior cycle when I lived with someone who was diagnosed with what is known as Borderline Personality Disorder. This individual was quite charming and functional on the surface, a sort of social chameleon who appeared to be very adaptable. But over time, I came to know a different person altogether--someone horribly empty and in pain, grasping at identities and situations in an effort to feel like someone. To belong. He needed a structured environment, all the while resenting it; he had no idea what to do with freedom when it came. He tried on personas like clothes and would attempt to dominate others in his environment with whatever the latest set of ideas happened to be. Always, upon destruction of his attempt to force a relationship with the world and various people or things, he would collapse into a victimized, childlike and dependent pile of needy insanity, followed by outbursts of rage and suicidal despondency.
Psychiatrists and psychologists explained to me that this way of being stems from an extremely abusive or unstable childhood, in which a "stable personality" is somehow not allowed to develop in the normal way. The sufferer gets stuck in a sort of pre-developmental mode, "borrowing" traits and characteristics and coping methods from others while never really incorporating a unique personality of his or her own. Seeking stability, the Borderline will do anything to "adopt" a sympathetic partner or friend, with whom a complete "merging" is attempted. Usually, after a while, this results in an attempted "distancing" by the perceived object of fulfillment, which totally panics a Borderline into extreme mood swings and psychotic behavior, and often violence against self and other.
There is no cure, they said, although years of intensive therapy can result in improvement. Borderline Personalities seem to lack the ability to deeply reflect upon the self and thus take responsibility for their own behaviors. Their predicaments are always the fault of someone else. As adults, cognitive "restructuring" appears to be particularly difficult for these people, even though they are often highly intelligent or logical.
That was the scientific, medical/psychological opinion. Metaphorically speaking, my relationship with this man went down the black hole of his starving soul when I finally understood that there was nothing I could do to make it better, and that I was at great personal risk while attempting to "hang in there".
Later, when I had time to reflect upon this tragic situation and what I may have learned, I realized that I had experienced, up-close, an extremely vivid example of exaggerated "normalcy". We all, at one time or another, go through periods of neediness and a sense of being somewhat "lost", unsure of exactly who we are or what we want. We have all thrown a tantrum, inner or outer; we have most likely reacted out of proportion to a situation at least once or twice. We have probably tried to emotionally manipulate someone, consciously or not, successfully or not. Chances are pretty good, if you are reading this, that you've stood on the edge of your own abyss and looked down, if only to scare yourself.
There is a fine line between healthy and destructive emptiness that I'm sure I have spent time walking. I acknowledge this fully; I think, perhaps, I may have been drawn into relating so closely to potential destruction because I needed to really see the monster, in my face, so to speak. Looking around at people in the world, I am continually surprised (really) at the rampant body-mind-spirit illness that passes for usual. It is as if we stumble into perfect freedom, but feel it as a terrible vacuum that nothing can fill. We continue to look "out there" to people, circumstances and things to heal us and complete us; seeing ourselves as divided, all we find are reflections that turn out to be unreal. All I have to do to affirm this craziness and scare the hell out of myself is turn on the news. The reflection does not seem, in spite of all our advances, to be improving; not only are the mirrors endless, but they are spinning. How nauseating.
So given the state of the culture and the current uncertainty, how does a person thrive? How can we stay mentally "stable", somewhat rational and even compassionate while in the midst of fight or flight, or even as an "objective witness" to unraveling lives?
My answer is to take a deep breath (or twelve), and stand for a moment in the basics--what is most basic is always a good reference point.
Assuming that physical survival needs are covered, or perhaps beyond hope of being covered, all that is left is your relationship to life. I'm speaking of emotional and psychological well-being, here.
Let's say that the map somehow got torched, the predicted route to fulfillment turned out to be a scam, and the very stars relied upon for emergency navigation seem to have fallen from the sky. You can't see your own reflection. This is good, this is an opportunity! We use reflections, you see, create them as landmarks--but the truth is, when the winds of change ruffle the surface, the reflection vanishes in a blur. You are transparent, not a mask, a gorgeous emptiness. There is no concrete road or permanent city for your soul. You suddenly see yourself as the place and time in which you dwell...and then as nothing but the capacity for various places and times. You are no less than the possibility of endless ways of travel, of being, of relationship with being.
I realize that this is a scary scenario for most, as it plants us in a place completely unknown. But the unknown need not be negative. Many people spend their lives fearing various forms of cessation, as if the purpose of life is to arrive safely at death (thanks, Alan Cohen!). This results in a most miserable form of numbness. We feel for a reason. Fear is something to use for practical purposes, like when you need to avoid a large vehicle or animal bearing down on you. Otherwise, fear is a signal to look deeper.
The reason I feel it is important to get down to the invisible bottom of yourself, to actually expose yourself to the place where all division dissolves in a sort of clean "meaninglessness", is to understand that you are actually ok when you are this free. Maybe even more than ok. You are still breathing, still with yourself, and able to see the illusions of the world--and thus, your own--very clearly. Spending some time as pure potential, you will see your ingrained, habituated personalities materialize on the spot when there's even an imaginary threat to the defensive existence of those same personalities. You will watch these characters create the very circumstances they claim to guard you from. This can be downright funny.
You will also be in a prime position to watch your various positions contradict each other, blowing the illusion of faithful ideals completely to pieces. When this kind of subversive activity goes on outside of our awareness, lifelong inner wars can tear us apart (as well as those who live with us). Becoming aware saves us, and our loved ones, from the worst kinds of hypocricy.
This is more than just reflecting upon personal motivation and behavior, which is always justifiable one way or another. I'm talking about feeling what you are without any of the habits, crutches or identities you hide behind. Are you these things? Are you sure?
At the bottom of the stripping away, there is one of those pregnant pauses, one of those seasons in-between. I think many of us with a certain "calling" seriously consider the option of retiring from the "normal" world, at this point. Any option becomes feasible and any path valid. But that is the point of this experience. Whether you decide to go live in a cave or go back to kids, dog and nine-to-five (or garden and cabin off the grid), there is the realization that you have seen through what you used to think was "yourself", and you have become nothing less, as pure potential, than all of existence. Not only are you nothing, you are everything--but with a different relationship to both of these concepts. As a human being, you will always create a self with which to process the raw universe. But now the self is deliberate and attended. The self is mature. The self, although still able to feel pain and joy and the full scale of emotion, feels each thing in full--there is a certain pain to joy, and joy in pain.
Rather than trying to live in dichotomy, a balance comes about where it is understood that the creation of one thing also brings about its destruction. Every decision brings its opposite into being in some way. This turns out to be not just acceptable, but the basis for honesty, empathy and compassion. All people, being the artists that they are, have a unique "style" in which this maturity is expressed. That kind of expression is authentic, not based on a reactive, defensive or victimized "persona". An energy and light follows this awareness wherever it goes, whatever it does.
When a human becomes this intimate with the self--when it is seen that there was no true escape in the first place--it is also understood that one is never lost. The hands of soul open, willing to experience the full depth and breadth of sensation and meaning in its myriad forms. Life becomes a kind of beloved with a body full of pressure points and erogenous zones; even a light touch brings an unfolding response and an invitation to explore a bit more and a bit more. I have a knot, right here, she says. Oh yes, I can feel it. Do you see what I mean? Oh yes, I really do. I hear you, I feel you. I'm there.
This is the essence of unforced and undefended relationship. It's easy to see the universe as one's own extended body, where even the vaguest contact is felt and noted somewhere as an underground conversation. The "language of the gods", someone said...