I said in my previous post that the selfful person sees others the way he sees trees and stars – as part of nature. Just as he doesn’t imagine he can control the stars, he doesn’t think he can control others.
But is this really plausible in human interactions? I wondered that today when I was on the verge of an argument with my wife.
I had a long day of work. Was tired and wanted to relax. I walk into the kitchen to help with dinner, and find my close to two year old daughter playing among a half box of uncooked spaghetti sticks all over the floor. I turn to my wife and she says, “It fell out and she was having fun, so I let it be. They say it’s good for children to play.”
I got annoyed and tried to not vent. I walked away. But the venting started in my mind: “Oh, you know this is just the kind of thing I don’t like. That too after a long day. Why can’t we have a nice mellow evening with everything in its place! Why does this have to happen? Why can’t you be different?” After a little while the venting kicked up a notch in my mind: “We didn’t play with food like this when I was growing up. Why can’t I pass on my childhood to my daughter? It’s like the way I was brought up is disappearing and we are not doing anything about it? How can you not care? My family’s form of life is disappearing and doesn’t that matter? We need to have our daughter have a link to that. How is that going to happen if she is allowed to throw and play with spaghetti all over the floor?”
I am writing this not to say my wife is wrong. I don’t think she was wrong. What is more interesting is the movement of my mind. In a matter of seconds, my mind went from spaghetti on the floor to feeling my kind of childhood is being lost to my daughter. Annoyance at cleaning up the mess merged with an existential angst of losing the past I knew, and all blurred together by a sense of this is not right!
And in the blur the focus becomes the other person. If only she wasn’t like this. If only she understood. How can I make her understand? Or at any rate make her change? Reasoning doesn’t seem to help. Maybe if I show my frustration and then my anger? Maybe if I seem sad or depressed? Maybe if I raise my voice or if I walk away and make her feel bad?
In that moment I wasn’t seeing my wife as if she was like the trees or the stars or the rain – something out of my control. To the contrary, I was upset because I was intent on seeing her as someone I should be able to control. To accept I can’t control her feels like a failure on my part, as if I were weak or not charasmatic enough to move her to be different. It’s as if my mind were saying: “No, she isn’t like the stars or the mountains. She is my friend, my wife, someone I share my life with. She is a part of me and I a part of her. How can I see her like the way I see the stars and the mountains? How can I see my daughter that way, or my mother? No! To be close means we can make claims on each other! That is what binds us together! And in this moment, damn it, this is the claim I make on this person in my life: I don’t like this! This will not do! I will show my dissatisfaction as a way of changing her, so that we can then be more in harmony.”
All this makes sense to the venting mind. But even through the haze of the venting and the argument I am having my mind (playing the parts of both myself and my wife), it is obvious this is not going to work. The more I get annoyed or sulk or show frustration, the more this moment is slipping away. Not towards a future where things will be how I want them to be, but towards a future where there will now only be yet another memory of a time when we didn’t see things in the same way. If I stick with my venting mind, the only thing which will be achieved is an evening of brooding.
The venting mind wants to blame this also on the other person. This evening is turning into a mess because she refuses to understand. If only she could see the point I am making and change and apologize and clean the mess quickly, we can have such a good evening. The problem is she is like the stars – unchangeable by me. She is not changing because she doesn’t care enough about me. If she cared, she wouldn’t be like the stars. She would be responsive to my feelings and desires, and would change here, now, in this instant. Instead of how she is, with her personality and her upbringing and her nature and her desires and her values, she would be more like me – she would push through all her background and her thoughts and feelings so that she can be responsive to me. Isn’t that what human relationships are about?
For the venting mind seeing the other as the stars is a sign of failure. As if the people don’t care enough about each other. As if caring would mean that they would be willing to change in each instant and be available to the other person.
The way I am willing to change in this instant to be available to her?
The venting mind continues: No, that’s totally different. I don’t have to change in this instance because I didn’t do anything wrong. She was wrong to make the mess. Why do I have to change to her? I don’t have to. I won’t. I will not.
Here we see the basic illusion of the venting mind. The problem for the venting mind isn’t that a person might be like the stars to another person. It’s that I want to be like the stars to her! She should experience me as the unchanging and the unchangable, such that she feels she has to change for me.
If we pull on this thread, something interesting starts to surface. What is pushing the anger and the frustration, and the hurt and the disappointment – yes, even about something so trivial as spaghetti on the floor – is that I don’t experience myself like the stars and the mountains and the oceans. Cool. Calm. Serene. Majestic. Still. At peace. Not easily perturbed.
No, clearly I don’t experience myself that way because here I am losing my cool and ready to spill my emotions all over the room just over some spaghetti on the floor.
What is hard for the venting mind to accept is that in this instance, in whole room the only thing which isn’t acting like the stars is me. My wife is fine. My daughter is fine. The spaghetti is fine. The floor is fine. The cat playing with the spaghetti is fine. The walls are fine. The tv is fine. The people on the tv arguing about politics are fine, least concerned by the spaghetti on the floor. My family are fine. India is fine. My childhood is fine. The past is fine. The future is fine.
None of these things are losing their cool. The only one getting upset is me. And that leads to a feedback loop. The more I see I am the only one getting upset, the more upset I get. The more upset I get, the more the situation feels wrong. And so the more wrong it seems that I am the only one getting upset.
The venting mind has gotten so bent out of shape because it identifies itself with me. The anxious mind says, “I am Bharath! Hear my troubles! I am troubled means Bharath is troubled. I am troubled means he is in danger. He might lose something important to him like his childhood or his self-image, and then he won’t be the same person. He will be a diminished person. He will less of who he is. His essence and his nature will be chipped away, one spaghetti like instance at a time. Unless he makes a stand now to stop the tide, he will be a pale reflection of himself. I am his essence and I am the only one protecting him. I am his defense. Without me he might perish. He isn’t like the stars – immutable and able to withstand anything. He is fragile, easily breakable if due care isn’t taken! I am that care. So hear me roar about the spaghetti on the floor!”
We are now very far indeed from the spaghetti on the floor. It was but an opportunity for the venting mind to release itself and to lay claim to who I am. To lay claim to itself as who I am.
The more I feed the venting, the more it spins its story: “I am you Bharath. You are not like the stars and the mountains. Don’t believe all that. You and what you hold dear, like the life you want for your daughter, are fragile. You have to be vigilant. Alert. On the guard for any crack which might lead to the slippery slope of change. Don’t believe all this stuff about you being part of the infinite nature of the world. Humbug. You need protection. You need me! Don’t set me aside! Don’t ignore me!”
Here if I manage to think of the other person as I think of the stars, something amazing happens. I don’t then think, “Oh, she is like the stars. That means she was right all along.” No. When I see her as the stars, I see that I cannot control her. That in fact the venting mind that has taken possession of my peace cannot control her. She like the stars is beyond the reach of my venting mind.
She is in her own world, living her own life. The spaghetti on the floor meant something different to her than it did to me. Something fun, something playful. Something to share with our daughter. In her world there was no problem. And no matter how much my venting mind wants to make it a problem for her, it is met over and over again with the hard reality that it isn’t a problem for her. At most my wife might appreciate it is a problem for me. But that doesn’t prove that it is a problem as such, that her instincts are all wrong and she needs to be a different person.
The life energy in each person resists this kind of change from outside. The life energy in each person is so strong and so potent that the venting mind’s delusional attempts to control the other person fall flat. And this is what the venting mind cannot accept – it’s own limits. That people are more than what the venting mind imagines people to be. That they are more than what the venting mind can understand.
To the venting mind accepting that the other person is like the stars is to accept defeat. But in reality, it is victory and freedom. For it is victory and freedom over the venting mind.
The moment I grasp that the venting mind can’t control the other person, I start to sense the possibility of another, more selfful truth: the venting mind doesn’t speak for me either! It has no more control over me than over other people.
The venting mind has power over me only as long as I give it that power. And I give it that power because I think I need it to control the other person. I try to use the venting mind as a weapon over the other person. But once it is activated, the venting mind doesn’t care which person it controls. It needs to control a person to survive. And when it sees it can’t control others, it turns on the person who activated it. It now says I am you and you are me, and spins its web over the person who tried to use it merely as a weapon.
Seeing the other person as the stars breaks the spell of the venting mind. By seeings its limits over others, I can see its limits over myself as well.
Then slowly an awareness starts to emerge. Maybe I am not the venting mind as it says I am. Maybe I am not fragile. Maybe I don’t have to constantly be on guard. Maybe there is something of the stars in me. Maybe I too am like the stars and the mountains and the oceans. Maybe I can let go of the venting, scared mind and be with myself.
Then like the spaghetti on the floor, and my daughter playing with the spaghetti, and the cat playing next to her, and the trees outside, and the moon shining over those trees, and the stars sparkling next to the moon, I too am fine. Perfectly fine.