this too
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
  Degrees of separation

The central teaching at the retreat I attended recently was about not behaving as though you’re separate. About avoiding the absurd but prevalent paradigm of ‘all the rest of the universe - plus me’. Well, for me this was the central teaching. I think we all home in on what most resonates, in the silence, with our own situation.

Separation. Hmm. I experience myself as very separate. Grew up a lonely only child of unsociable parents. Experimented – not too successfully – for a few years with sharing my heart and my house. By my mid thirties, and pretty much ever since, alone again and living a pretty isolated life. The rest of the universe over there and me over here; yes, indeed.

It’s in my family. Very small funerals in my family. By then no one’s speaking to their siblings, and people outside the family were never viewed with anything but suspicion. I like to think that I’m not like my family, but, ha, when is that ever true?

So, I bring this teaching home and try, at least, to consider it in the light of my everyday behaviour.

It’s a joke, a very bad joke, how separate I think I am. I’m a leaver, largely. I left my family more than 20 years ago. Left men quite a few times – mostly for excellent reasons, but maybe not always. Left the only city where I ever felt at home, when life there got complicated. Left for London, where it’s easy to float in the crowd, float in your own separate bubble. Where no one will try to burst it - they’re all moving too fast. Left friends who disappointed me. Left jobs, political parties, shared homes. Closing up the holes in my bubble of separation.

And now? Well, age brings what you might sometimes – not always, oh no, not by any means - call wisdom. I calmed down a bit, grew more resilient. I try harder, I think. And I'm kinder, to both myself and others.

But old habits die hard. Here’s what I watch myself do in the past couple of weeks:

My friend A, trying only to be nice, makes me feel dreadfully patronised. I think: I won’t see her again. Nor the others who heard what she said.

Someone in the co-housing group gets up my nose. Though kind, sincere and generous, C is an arrogant loner (rather a lot like me?) and I’m very annoyed by the way he operates. I think: I’m fed up. I’ll leave the group.

I’m embarrassed by that too-personal, too-negative blog-post. Why did I blurt out all that? I think: I’ll delete it. I’ll stop blogging. Pretend it never was.

They slice down in front of me like a heavy screen, these thoughts. Instant. Instinctive. Protective. I try not to act on them at once. Just notice them and wait and see.

I think: supposing I wasn't separate? Supposing these were part of me? Supposing A was my face and C was my hand? Supposing my rash on-line words were my hair? I’ve often hated my face, my body, my temperament, but they were part of me, so I couldn’t reject them. So here they still all are. And, hey, I hate them much less than I used to; mostly, even, I feel an affectionate tolerance for them. After all, they’re part of me and haven’t served me badly. We’re still here. On the whole I’m glad I couldn’t just excise them when I felt bad.

So I wait, and feel the feelings. Feel how bad they feel, how out of proportion, how out of control. Ouch. Feel and feel and feel them. And eventually they start to abate. And a few days later they’re much smaller and I think: what was that ABOUT?! and I’m glad (until the next time) that I didn’t end that relationship, that belonging, that expression - because they’re part of me.

So can I behave as though I’m not separate? It would certainly be a revolution.
Personally, I find it hard enough to be one with nature, much less one with mankind.
It terrifies me, when I take it seriously. The thought that maybe none of my relationships are over. That maybe really I've only postponed my losses, not cut them.
I have cut off so many friends for such simple reasons. Funny, how a few strayed back after a couple of decades, none the worse for time.

Courtesy and compassion toward myself and everyone I know, cheerfulness that sappy ole thing, and trust sewn like grass seeds, have all grown connections I thought I had long ago severed.

We are all the same, as much as different. Love can regrow, friendships reform. Put out your hand, you may be surprized. I certainly was. Am.
As another of life's leavers, it's the sitting out the feelings of discomfort and dismissivness that you talk about that is the key, I think. And I do understand about wanting to delete stuff you have written. I have sometimes cringed in embarrassment over comments I have left on blogs ... far too revealing.

For what it's worth, Jean, I really appreciate what you share here.
I have noticed over the years that I am curiously tolerant of other people's behavior if I like them a lot. It seems to take about 7 years of bad stuff for me to write them off forever. It has happened 2-3 times, so I think I am justified in calling it a pattern.
Oh my goodness, I recognize almost every word/feeling you've expressed in this post, Jean. I am a leaver too, for similar reasons, and the sense of separateness is second nature. Or first nature. But I'm not sure it can (or should?) be entirely eradicated. Can one "become" non-separate by a conscious effort? What if there is a certain kind of nourishment one obtains from the separateness?
Being separate saved my life. Can we be connected and yet hold onto a piece of ourselves separately? I really, really need to do that. And when I get time (perhaps this weekend), I think I will blog on this. Wonderful, meaningful (to me) topic.
Thank you all for the very interesting and meaningful comments. Natalie and Tamar, I completely know where you're coming from and I don't think there's a contradiction. I think it's perfectly possible to have the healthy and necessary degree of separation as defined by Western developmental psychologists, but to work on being less separate in the way the Buddhists mean it. In fact, I think the first is necessary for the second. I know this on a gut level from what I've been struggling with in the past week or two. And Reb Anderson also talked a lot on the retreat about the importance of expressing our individuality fearlessly as a prerequisite for change or development. But I'll have to think about it some more before I can clarify intellectually. Thank you for making me think so much and so fruitfully!
I've thought a lot about this, the apparent contradiction between the healthy autonomy advocated by psychology and the boundary-less-ness advocated by Buddhists. I think you're right Jean, that you can't really get the boundarylessness without the autonomy. I think the converse is also true, actually -- that you can't really get the autonomy without the boundarylessness. "Living for others" as it typically plays out, is in fact predicated on very strict boundaries and a grimly clutched attachment to a particular reification of ourselves and of others. ("I am a kind and loving person. X is a needy person who, unlike me, can't transcend his need.")

Hmm. Maybe I need to post about this.
Funny, I just posted about this too, though in a more flippant manner, I think. Wish I'd read this first; it might've helped me clarify my thinking.
Just catching up after a week away from blogland, and wondering whether it's getting the balance right that's important - the balance between autonomy and boundarylessness? As in, if we have the right degree of autonomy (what's right for each one of us, that is, not some kind of moral absolute) then giving up the boundaries will be easier and feel safer?

I also question whether leaving, separating, slamming down that portcullis, actually ends what we'd like it to end. For example, cutting off a friendship with someone who makes you feel patronised will only stop that person making you feel patronised, but finding a way to manage your own feelings differently when you feel patronised will stop anyone ever being able to make you feel patronised in quite that way again.

I'm not, generally speaking, a leaver, although there are exceptions: I end friendships/relationships when I conclude that they are, for whatever reason, actually or potentially emotionally damaging for me; I let them wither when I conclude that I'm not getting anything, or likely to get anything, out of them for myself. Other than that I live with, and learn from, the irritations and annoyances that inevitably come with the joys and delights of friendship. I don't think you can have one without the other. For me, again, it's about balance.

But that's just my way. I've developed it so that it works for me. Doesn't mean it would work for anyone else. It seemed relevant though!
It seems that just by writing this, so honestly, you are taking steps toward connection rather than separation. I think that takes a great deal of courage.
What a great post, Jean. And what thoughtful comments. I'm in the thick of this right now with my divorce from a woman who has left, who has shut herself off completely withut offering any reasons for her decision and any dialogue that might be healing. I've been consigned to a zone of endless speculation and self-doubt.

A huge part of the history of our problem is that in her alcoholism and illness I became the one who overfunctioned in our relationship--the one mature, responsible person in the relationship--and so I did it all. I accepted all the weight she put on me without any boundaries.

In a converstion with my sister last night, during which I was very emotional, she suggested that a huge part of my problem at this point is that my own capacity for empathy is so huge that I continue to absorb all the pain of her illness. In numbing herself, I took on the emotions she displaced. Now I'm doing the work of grieving for two, as well. And it really does hurt twice as much.

I'm struggling to figure out how to rebalance things. To draw better lines, but not to do so without compassion. And I'm finally starting to figure out--thanks to hardnosed input from others--that the compassion has to start at home.
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