Tuesday, 7 February 2023

You're always good enough –in the relational field.

It was a normal day in the monastery.  At the meal time a group of Sri Lankan donors turned up to offer dana – the daily meal. The group comprised about six adults and four children. One of the adults explained that the group consisted of three generations – grandparents, parents, children; maybe an aunt or two, it wasn’t that clear. Everyone mingled together and helped to offer the food, then we went into the sala, the main meeting/dining hall. They paid their respects to the shrine and to me, with the children – two girls and two boys – coming up to me individually to offer their formal bows. After the meal, they all returned; the adults sat to the back of the small hall and the children came to the front, took some cushions and, plopping themselves down on them, looked at me with cheerful faces. The oldest was a girl who turned out to be eleven; the smallest was a boy who looked about three.  I engaged the girl in a conversation about school and her favourite subjects, about which she was quite animated. The other kids were moving a bit and exploring their cushions in a quiet way.  

Suddenly the door opened and a Western woman came in; she sat down, pulled out a piece of paper, and saying ‘I’ve got some questions,’ began asking about the not-self and emptiness and how to get into the not-self. She was talking at high-speed but after a while I managed to engage her in some dialogue, and pretty soon it came down to suffering – which is not unusual when people launch a high-speed monologue. She had this self in her head who was constantly screaming and fighting with her father. Her father was psychologically on her back all the time, had been all her life, telling her that she wasn’t good enough. So I tried to address that as best I could, but her ability to listen wasn’t that high. I’d get started on suggesting that she couldn’t overcome this thing with her reasoning mind otherwise after fifty years she surely would have done so … instead to feel the emotion now and how it felt in her body. But I’d only get started in that before she’d interrupt with more about feeling so trapped and stuck and wanting the whole thing to stop; wanting to be able to not feel anything, to get detached and into emptiness and not care any more. A wrong view on not-self and emptiness. Not that this was the  topic; the point that stuck out was how to meet and resolve the suffering.

Somewhere in all this, I turned my attention to the Sri Lankan group. The adults were sitting quite relaxed and listening. The children were sitting quite comfortably – well, maybe the little boy was bouncing on his cushion – so I said to them ‘Do you think you’re not good enough?’ They looked at me, clearly not understanding what I was saying. So I addressed the eldest girl, ‘Do you ever think that you’re not good enough?’ and she didn’t have any words, just broadened her smile and wriggled a bit. So I gestured to the parents and grandparents and said to the woman, ‘This is why they don’t get what I’m talking about - because of the parents. This is where it begins.’ The adults weren’t hovering over the children; they were attentive, but letting the children find their own space. The children weren’t running riot but gently animated and responsive. That’s what happens when the topic of being good enough doesn’t take hold. There’s a healthy relational field.

We don’t generally see relationships in terms of fields, but as something that happens between two people. This is an aspect of the illusion of being a separate self, a viewpoint based on the observation that when we’re born our bodies become separate from the body that they’ve been forming in. But this appearance is deceptive, because psychologically and emotionally, the newborn is not separate. In fact its sensory-motor system isn’t capable of operating its body; it can’t even hold its own head up. She or he doesn’t yet know what the physical body is: their gaze notices fingers and experiments with moving them to make the connection that ‘this is part of me’. And a lot of the time their eyes are focused on a parent; they need the adult’s help, as well as the smile and the chattering and cooing that the parent offers in order to establish connectivity. Through this sympathetic attention to one who is in a totally open state, there’s a steady atmosphere of emotional warmth that gives them the meaning ‘you belong; without doing anything you’re welcome here’.  That meaning, and the responsive interactions that affirm and enrich it, are the relational field. It’s generated by a few people, but the proper development is that as it gets established, it builds our emotional/ psychological body so that we can feel we belong – whether those people are present or not. This atmosphere, this relational field, is therefore not-self; it is the gestation place for our emotional body. 

Why do I say ‘body’? Well, those meanings, feelings and interactions get learned, familiarised and integrated as an ongoing psychological template – that is, an internalised form: ‘this is being here, this is me ’. Just like a body of knowledge, that emotional body moves around with us, and acts as the basis for our self-reference. But that reference is also not-self; it’s a non-verbal condition of being basically OK. 

To explain the emotional body in Buddhist terms: once we have the six-fold sense consciousness, we have mind consciousness and with that comes the the sensitivities that establish interactive connection. These sensitivities are the ‘aggregates’ of vedana - feeling-tones, sañña, meaning, and sankhara – activated energies that form impulses, reflexes and emotions. These three rise and move from citta, the heart of the conscious process, and direct impulses, speech and action. However it is also through these we’re aware of ourself as the subject in an apparently ‘outside’ world that affects us and receives our response. Thus we belong and have meaning – or not.

As feeling, meaning and activation get running, something is interpreted (saññā) as friendly or hostile with agreeable or disagreeable feeling (vedanā).  So there is the response (sankhāra) to move towards or to defend.  That’s the basic program of the emotional body, and it forms in dependency on the relational context in which it is dwelling. This is primarily the human context. In those early years, it’s going be the parental or familial interaction. In the original social model, there is the extended family of uncles, aunts, grandparents and so forth, that perhaps even extends through a village or a tribe, and it includes all the children in its field of belonging. So this establishes a wide relational field; the interactions are not just between one or two personalities but to a collective ethos. With a wide field, the emotional body is firmly established because it has wide-spreading roots. This is what it’s like to be a human amongst all the humans; it’s not just based upon the rather fragile person-to-person relationship, where there is a special person who who likes or doesn’t like me, or is having a good or bad day and so on.  

It's rather like when we plant the seed of a shrub or tree in the earth: those roots will grow out into the soil. Over time, through their micro-organisms, they will cause the soil to adapt to their needs. Now if you take that seed and put it in a plant pot, it will continue to grow, but the soil is pretty much stagnant as it doesn’t have creatures moving around in it. And as the roots grow they’ll be bound by the circumference of the pot. If the plant isn’t repotted in successively bigger pots the roots grow tight, tangled and compressed. And, as it is also pot-bound, the soil can’t adapt. Similarly, the healthiest psychological and emotional growth occurs in a broad relational field of supportive humans. Someone who only has one or two parents to bond to has a rather small pot and so the emotional body is more self obsessive: ‘my emotional welfare is dependent on one or two people, I’d better please them.’  So there’s a lot of introverted questioning about one’s value and being good enough, and a lot of critical self-referencing. The soil doesn’t have much fertility in it, and they might not even know there is any: it’s just a matter of me and you. Then if something is discordant in the relationship, I, the little helpless one, had better change, because the one or two controlling adults aren’t going to. If there’s something wrong, there’s something wrong with me. Even though sometimes, of course, the two adults are having a bad day, or have a drink problem, or are fighting with each other, etc, etc. Or sometimes, their day is spent working to raise the family and they can’t offer the continual presence. The field is depleted, but the little one assumes ‘It’s my fault.’ Accordingly, a wise parent will look to other relatives or a baby-sitter in order to keep feeding the little one’s emotional body.

Moreover, when you’re an infant, (and sometimes as an adult) you can’t always get away from discord in the field; you may be stuck in a situation, or with a family member, that’s not responsive. So the system closes, and you numb out around the sense of ‘something wrong with me’. Or you think of something else or otherwise distract. But in their closed state, the aggregates form an inadequate subject (little me) and a hostile person that lives inside me.  As with the distressed woman, the problem isn’t actually the hostile person, it’s the relationship with the person that the aggregates form. From that toxic or stagnant soil, a hostile meaning has become a person living in a starved emotional body.

So it’s not exactly a loving person that we need, but the healthy relational soil that will feed our emotional bodies. In this context, love isn’t sentiment or romance; it’s the atmosphere of emotional warmth and connectivity that is the sign of a living relational field. So the question is: if that has been, or is, inadequate, how do we find that field and that atmosphere? It’s not something that we can create; we can’t create being seen with sympathy. We may not feel comfortable with being completely open - and we may have learnt that to receive emotional warmth we have to do something. But that doesn’t create a welcome, fertile soil. We have to get our roots to open, even tentatively, in a way that opens their tight ball. Now the pot plant finds it very difficult because it’s never learn to extend its roots. It doesn’t know living soil, it finds the creatures moving through it frightening, it doesn’t know that its roots will cause that soil to adapt. It’s learnt that the soil is dead and so it holds itself closed. So it carries its pot around with it, searching for the one person who would love me. Yet it doesn’t know what that love is, so there is fantasy and projection.  

It seems to me that the basic Buddhist practices of generosity and morality (= to others as to myself) are the soil for our roots to grow in. They establish a relational field that isn’t based on personalities but on a common value, the value of mutuality. It empties self-view. Anyone can participate in a human context of welcome acceptance and looking out for each other. As I commented to the woman in distress, you start with giving to something, caring for whatever you feel safe with, even a dog. Continue with sīla, mutual respect and non-harming. Then  dwell in the feel of those qualities, absorb them. This is the basis of the love that feeds our roots; we give it, receive it and in it there’s no need to perform, attract anyone or be special. And it affects the soil of our felt environment. It’s open, and boundless; there’s nothing to fear. This is the beginning of that sympathetic awareness that is extended through giving, to conscience and concern, further and further to reach all beings, inner and outer, with goodwill and compassion. And equanimity, of course, because not everyone's available; when their relational field is clogged, equanimity at least keeps yours open.