“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.”
My basic response is twofold:
First, I reject the “either / or” manner of seeing someone’s behaviour toward me as either a reflection of the state of their relationship with themselves or as a statement about my value. Second, and more problematically, I reject how this presentation restricts me to viewing another’s actions according to only these particular two possibilities: surely their “relationship” with me (and with others generally) is also at stake and surely anyone’s response to me is always more than a “statement about my value” (and thus also a response to my behaviour, my position at work, my gender, etc.).
In other words, I am first advocating a “both / and” orientation that would see someone’s behaviour as (at least) both a reflection of how they view themselves and as something that bears on my sense of self-worth. More importantly, next I strongly advocate that the above options are not the only (or even the best) ways to construe human interaction: it is complex and many factors are at play.
However, I want to do more than offer the above response. Instead I want to present an argument for this response that will demonstrate why Yogi Bhajan’s statement is at least one-sided, if not actually irrelevant. In so doing I will highlight a particular tension—the tension between relationship and distinction—that I believe will be essential for engaging with similar issues in future.
Let’s begin by looking at human action.
Concerning the Yogi’s point about behaviours, I understand that all human action is purposeful action—action undertaken for a reason—with the aim of achieving a desired goal (and with each goal contributing in some way to the ultimate human goal of surviving in what we consider the best possible way)1. Now if all human action is indeed purposeful action then it should be obvious that issues can occur in one of two ways: either the action or the goal can be problematic.
Now relative to actions “problematic” can indicate two things. On the one hand, problematic can simply mean that an action is unsuccessful due to its insufficiency (in strength, direction, timeliness, or some other quality), another party’s self-determination (someone reneges, is absent or unaware, etc.), or factors beyond one’s control (co-incidence of circumstances, unpredicted obstacles, etc.).
On the other hand, an action can be “problematic” because it is incommensurate with the goal to be achieved, such as trying to water plants with ammonia. In the first sense a potentially valid action (one that under other circumstances could succeed) is ultimately unsuccessful; in the second sense an invalid action (one that under any circumstances could not succeed) is unsuccessful because the action is fundamentally disconnected from the the goal that it is meant to achieve.
In terms of goals, these also can be problematic in two ways.
On the one hand, they can be excessive in some way (i.e., beyond our ability or resources, counter to our ethics, against the laws of physics, etc.). Yet on the other hand our goals can be problematic because they too are incommensurate with the world in which we live: I can act successfully to feed a friend by making her a genuinely nutritious sandwich, but if this is an “invisible friend” them my potentially successful action will always fail, because the goal itself is invalid.
Let’s return to actions. I would distinguish these two sense of “problematic,” in terms of actions, as failure (due to insufficiency, self-determination, or other factors) and incompatibility.
Further, I would distinguish between “incompatibility” of two sorts: a) unawareness of the reality in which we live versus b) detachment from that reality. Unawareness is when, on one’s first attempt to achieve a goal, one adopts out of ignorance an action incompatible with that goal. Detachment is when, after having already failed to achieve a goal because one adopted an action incompatible with that goal, one continues to adopt such an incompatible action to achieve that same goal.
The basic difference is that unawareness benefits from learning; detachment does not.
In essence, then, learning is being able to recognize and assimilate information from external stimuli (literally, to interpret and make sense of myself and the world around me, within the context of acting toward achievement of my goals) such that I am able i) to refine my actions toward better achievement of my goals or ii) to re-orient my goals within a more plausible understanding of achievability.
Based on this groundwork my next post explores the tension between relationship and distinction.
- Note that “the best possible way” is very much open to interpretation, such that different people will “live out” very different understandings of what constitutes human thriving / right living. Yet my point is not that the definitions vary but that everyone has a definition, whether they are aware of its content or not. ↩