Have you ever found yourself debating between two options or weighing two needs against each other only to find yourself flip-flopping between which is true?
Seen from one perspective, your need for rest might seem truest, and your desire to take time off for self-care seems valid and the best choice. Seen from another perspective, your need to fulfil your obligations and maintain your standing in your workplace might seem truest, and taking time off then seems selfish.
We can agonize endlessly about the validity of these choices, even well after the choice has been made. Was it the right choice, after all? Or are we ruining our life? This all or nothing thinking turns the debate into an all out battle inside us.
We can also be pulled into these debates about the pros and cons of other people, situations, and even our own selves. Should you accept yourself as you are? Or is accepting your foibles enabling?
Having faced several health challenges last year. I struggled with validating my need to rest because I know it is possible for me to be lazy. I know I’m still the same person who spent the summer after his Freshman year of college living off my savings and playing World of Warcraft instead of working.
I have also struggled with the question of how much I should try to change myself and how much I should try to grow. After losing a romantic partner to someone who was more sociable than myself, I thought perhaps I should be more social.
One morning, while I was agonizing over whether or not I was right to rest while I was suffering from a flu, it occurred to me that all of my needs were valid. Much of my agony derived from ruminating over which one was right.
In Western culture, we are taught that there is one right answer in any given situation, and we apply this to our consideration of our own selves. This idea that there is one right answer is the basis of our Justice system, which undergirds the stability of our civilization.
Unfortunately, this idea is at odds with the nature of our selves, and thinking this way sets us up to be at odds with our self.
The fundamental insight that leads me to this understanding of our complex inner self comes from a reading of “Plato’s Pharmacy” by Jacques Derrida.
The essay is a deconstruction of the Greek word Pharmakon, from which our modern word “pharmacy” derives. Essentially, the word contains both the meaning of “remedy” and “poison.”
The Greeks recognized that all drugs had effects that were beneficial and effects that were harmful. This is why their word for “drug” contained both meanings.
Significantly, viewing a drug from this standpoint, there is not a “side effect” separate from the intended effect. We are looking at the thing in a manner where we step back from our anthropocentric viewpoint.
A drug has the effects that it has. It is what it is. We choose to highlight what seems relevant based on context, maybe headache relief. But, speaking of the drug, itself, that one effect isn’t the effect. It’s just part of a complicated, interrelated whole.
This detached view of pharma mirrors the detachment with which we seek to view ourselves in our mindfulness practices. After all, it is attachment that brings suffering.
Attachment is an idea that bears a little explaining. The idea isn’t referencing our bond to other people, but our attachment to an outcome that we want. It is our attachment to what we desire in people, events, products, and even ourselves, that brings suffering and strife.
Just as in the case of drugs, we can conflate the desired quality with the thing itself, leading to judgment and misunderstanding.
When we focus on a quality we want to highlight in a romantic partner, we may feel betrayed by behavior that doesn’t seem consistent to the image we’re attached to. Someone you love for their kindness might neglect you as they spread their kindness around to others.
“Kindness” is a selective lens through which to view behavior, a way of highlighting aspects of a person just as a “desired effect” highlights an indiscrete property of a drug. A person’s kindness is one facet of a sort of curtain of lenses that both takes in and shapes the world.
The flipside of “kindness” might be a difficulty saying “no,” and that partner might be exhausted and feel the need in a relationship for a sanctuary where they don’t have to give.
It’s very difficult to illustrate this idea because we are very attached to labels and quite used to understanding ourselves and others through those labels. We should understand that the label represents what we’re highlighting and pulling out of something more complex.
Our relationship to ourselves and others is a bit like the parable of the farmer and the horse, a Taoist story that I first heard in “The Book of Joy,” a dialog between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
There was an old farmer who worked his crops for many years. One day, his beloved horse ran away. Upon hearing this, his neighbors lamented, “Such bad luck!”
“May be,” the farmer said.
The next morning, the horse returned with three wild horses in tow. “How wonderful!” the neighbors exclaimed.
“May be,” the old farmer replied.
The next day, the farmer’s son broke his leg trying to ride one of the wild horses. The neighbors consoled the farmer on his bad luck.
“May be,” the farmer remarked.
The next day, the military came to draft the young men of the village and passed over the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. The neighbors spoke of the farmer’s luck.
“May be,” answered the farmer.
The farmer’s neighbors judged the circumstances just as we judge a drug based on a desired effect. And similarly, we judge the perceived personality traits of our selves and others based on circumstance.
We have traits that are difficult to define because we only see them in combination with a circumstance. We only see how that trait effected that circumstance, and our view of it is limited by our attachment to the outcome we desire in the situation.
If we have a headache, we’re probably only thinking about the headache-relieving property of a drug when we take it. The drug still has many other effects, but that’s not what we’re highlighting.
Some people are very willing to jump into an issue verbally and try to hash it out. We might say they’re natural brainstormers. In a more complex situation, we might see them as careless and distracting.
But then, some problems are simple, and these people can address the problem better than a more analytical deep thinker. A less-constrained person can help prod an overthinker to ask for help.
The same personality trait could be seen as distracting or helpful based on circumstance. If we label it, we lock it to a given circumstance and highlight that aspect of a broader personality trait.
Ultimately, we must use meditation and mindfulness practices to help us develop detachment. It is tempting to judge aspects of ourselves and others as useful or detrimental. But much of what is useful or detrimental is circumstantial.
When we feel tempted to label ourselves or others and make judgements, perhaps the best response is: “May be.”
The truth, a thing that I have glimpsed but find it hard yet to hold fixed, is that seemingly contradictory things can be true.
You can need rest but also need to maintain your standing at work.
You can be hardworking and lazy, depending on circumstance.
You can be kind but judgmental, tormenting yourself over your judgments but yet needing some boundaries.
Clearly, I could never articulate the plurality of true contradictions that we contain. I invite you to contemplate what complexity in yourself you’ve been fighting to resolve. Let us all cultivate detachment to find acceptance.