Yogi Bhajan: relationship & distinction II

This post is a continuation of my reply to a quotation by Yogi Bhajan:

“If you are willing to look at another person’s behaviour toward you as a reflection of the state of their relationship with themselves rather than a statement about your value as a person, then you will, over a period of time cease to react at all.”

Given my last post, where does this leave us?

Well, if human action is always purposeful then Yogi Bhajan’s statement is indicating that, when humans interact, a) the primary goal of human behaviour—of their actions—is not the overt, putative goal (of buying something, seeking information, etc.) but is self-expression, and b) that the typical human response to another’s actions is to question one’s own value (i.e., self-evaluation).

In Bhajan’s view, then, the receiver’s focus is (or should be?) more on “how” another’s actions affect us than on “what” their actions are supposedly aimed at achieving—their goals. Yet given the above discussion about human action, attributing primacy to self-expression or self-evaluation implies big problems.

Specifically, where “self-expression” is not someone’s stated goal (of buying something, seeking information, etc.) then there is a detached incompatibility between the person’s actions and their goals (because their actions toward ‘buying something’ or ‘seeking information’ would be at odds with / unable to achieve the goal of self expression). Further, where “self-expression” is the primary goal underlying all human interaction then this goal is incommensurate with the world in which we live (because self-expression cannot alone—or even primarily—satisfy the ultimate human goal: surviving well / thriving)!

Similarly, where “self-evaluation” is primary there is likewise a detachment from the common logic of responding to a) what someone is saying and b) what they are actually referring to (rather than “how” it is being said and “how” this may or may not impact my sense of self-worth).

In other words, if “self-expression” were really to be someone’s primary goal when interacting with others then such a degree of detachment from / incompatibility with the real world would likely constitute a psychosis. Similarly, if self-evaluation were really to be one’s primary response to one’s interactions with others then this would likely constitute a neurosis.

So while I do think that psychotic episodes should be treated somewhat as the Yogi prescribes (don’t take them seriously) and that neuroses should not be allowed to control one’s life, the Yogi’s comments are not directed toward / limited to involvement with psychotic individuals or neurotic responses. They are general comments meant for general living and everyday life.

What I hope to have shown is that both human action and experience run counter to the Yogi’s claims, and so invalidate them. This is in fact a long argument to validate an important tension: that between relationship and distinction.

Let’s apply this tension here.

On the one hand, someone’s interaction with me—how they behave toward me—is both related to me and related to them in certain regards. As human beings living in the real world, we both have real-world concerns and engage with / respond to real-world stimuli. Similarly, my response to someone’s behaviour—how I perceive them to treat me—is likewise both related to me and related to them in certain regards. So certain modes of interaction (raised voices, stern looks, crying, laughing) will prompt a generally similar range of responses among many different people within the same culture.

On the other hand, someone’s interaction with me—how they behave toward me—is likewise distinct from me and distinct from them in certain regards. As different individuals with different histories and potentially different ages, genders, backgrounds, cultures, etc., we can respond to the same events and stimuli differently.

Again, my response to someone’s behaviour—how I perceive them to treat me—is similarly distinct from me and distinct from them in certain regards. So by virtue of having different goals (the clerk’s wants to perform his duties correctly; the home-owner wants something to stop a roof leak) and different stakes (the clerk has other customers to serve; the home-owner needs to stop the leak now) related to the same interaction, human behaviour is never so repetitive or predictable as the Yogi’s statement seems to imply.

The basic point is twofold.

First, human interaction is complex but not impenetrable: it has certain constants and demonstrates certain patterns that, like a text, can be explained and so also it can be interpreted in better (and worse) ways. And helping us interpret this text better involves recognizing that certain tensions are inherent and necessary to human life, such that by understanding their nature and function we will understand human interaction better.

Second, and by corollary, by failing properly to understand the kind and degree of relationships and distinctions within human interactions Yogi Bhajan’s statement appear a) reductionistic in its view of human action, b) one-sided in its categorization of the nature of difficult interactions, such that c) by failing to understand them it actually perpetuates poor interactions rather than identifying their causes (and so properly diagnosing their solutions).

The issue, then, is that Yogi Bhajan’s statement over-emphasizes some relationships and distinctions and under-emphasizes others. For example, Bhajan over-emphasizes the speaker’s relationship to him-herself while under-emphasizing the listener’s relationship with him-herself. Similarly, the Yogi under-emphasizes the breadth of scope within human interactions (i.e., by not acknowledging that more is a stake than the speaker’s relationship with him-herself and the listener’s sense of self-worth) and likewise under-emphasize the distinctiveness of the listener from the speaker.

Thus differences in goals and stakes—for parties within the same interaction—will mean that comments and behaviours will be seen as judgmental, helpful, cutting (or not) based on the context. In this way properly understanding and integrating such tensions as ‘relationship and distinction’ will be a key part of forming proper interpretations of human interaction.

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