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Personalization as the Root of Conflict

It took me a long time to understand that the root of so many conflicts and problems in my living arose out of an insistence – a sort of mental habit – of personalizing everything. Things did not just happen; they happened to me. It was not life but my life.

Thus, my investment in life grew large and precarious. The scale of what required defense and protection was vast. The point at which its unmanageability became clear was also the point at which it also became clear that escape was futile.

This personalization and its ruinous nature is actually not hard to see and thus talk about and think about. In fact, a nontrivial part of how it sustains itself is by remaining so accessible. We fall into the trap of asking “why do I always do this?” We repeat patterns of behavior and then analyze them, and the analysis becomes a pattern of behavior and so we analyze that. Round and round it goes, like a skein of yarn endlessly tangling itself.

And again, by the time we actually start to genuinely want a way out of that mess, it has become so densely knotted that there isn’t a way out. Every move we make doubles down on the chaos. Turn here and you’re facing a new ACIM teacher. Turn there and it’s a new yoga studio that just opened up. Behind you is a new relationship or a new take on an old relationship and in front of you an ever-so slightly-tweaked diet. And the whole thing is narrated by dozens of voices that take turns mesmerizing us, holding us fast to this uncreative keeling.

But there is a way out and the way out is simply to see that this narrow hellish maze is not real. We don’t have to escape because we’re not bound. It’s just a bunch of thoughts, no more real than wisps of cloud. But of course that’s a thought, too. You see how quickly we fall back into the familiar, even when it isn’t creative or nurturing . . .

It can help to give attention to things and inquire into the actual relationship that is present. Is it personal or is it impersonal? Does the distinction matter?

Sometimes when the moon is full and it’s late and I am finishing writing or reading but am not yet ready to sleep, I go outside and visit the horses. Near midnight they are very calm and quiet, often sitting together in the pasture. One, Jack, an Appaloosa cross, is white and appears luminescent in the moonlight. Sometimes they unfold from the earth and come to me, their enormous bodies floating through the light like secrets. In those moments, we are the only living beings in the universe. In those moments, love shucks the given form and simply gives itself in centerless radiation.

As I describe that moment, it is clear there is relationship inherent in it. But is the relationship between me and the horses? Or is the relationship one of life with itself? Or love with itself, say?

I think these are good questions! If the relationship is with me and the horses, then it is personal. This is my homestead and they are my animals. This beauty, this luminosity, this specialness is my experience; I am the one gaining wisdom and inner peace. I am the one writing poems about it. I am the one learning from it and I am the one who choose to be generous or miserly with what is learned.

I think most of us are in that space most of the time. If we are honest, I think we are, though often subtly. It’s not a sin or a crime. In fact, it’s natural. It’s how the human structure operates. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way the human structure operates, and that there isn’t a better way for it to operate, and that we aren’t here to learn that better way, and bring it forth, alone and together, for all of us.

I think that is why we end up enacting this project that we call spiritual seeking or pursuing happiness or whatever we call it. We intuitively grasp that something is not working in our living and we can’t figure out what it is and how to fix it. God comes into it then. Angels and psychologists and coaches come into it. And here we are.

What force or power brings the horses forth? Life does this. They are alive. They are living. And life is not ultimately reducible. We can’t reach its ultimate beginning; we can’t find the first cause beyond which there are no causes. We can go all the way down to the level of electrons where there is no differentiation, no space or matter, and still. We can understand a lot about life, we can become efficient at certain aspects of living, but the whole of it, the beyond-all-questions of it . . . that lies outside the range of our sensual and cognitive structure. All we can say is that life is wonderful and mysterious and utterly given. We literally have all of it. We aren’t a little alive and a little dead. It is all here always, so far as we can tell.

The same force or power that brings forth the horses brings forth us as well. Of course the forms are different but the force that infuses the forms is the same. There isn’t a kind of life there and a kind of life here. There is living. There is life. And so the question becomes, with respect to all the forms appearing and interacting: what is the relationship between them?

Because it’s clear that life, as such, is not about Sean. It doesn’t bring Sean forth any different than it brings for the horses. Or you. Or an ant or a sunflower or a star. It’s the same law, the same force, the same power. It can’t be personalized; it can only be misunderstood. When we personalize it, or try to, we aren’t seeing it clearly. We are confusing ourselves by not giving attention and being present to the simple fact of the shared nature of our being.

Often, when I am outdoors, there is a sense of being actually connected to what what appears. The other afternoon I watched half a dozen geese circle low overhead before gliding into a muddy cornfield a quarter mile south. In that moment of observation I did not experience distance between us. I did not experience separation marked by space. I experienced the openness as connecting us, like a braid or an outstretched hand. And this openness reached beyond us, encompassing the cornfield and the river, the hills and the cities, the highways and the clouds . . .

Often, in neo-advaita circles, the suggestion is that we are the pure awareness in which all phenomena arises. I understand that pointing, even as I experience it somewhat differently. Life assumes many structures and postures; I have the structure of a human being writing and homesteading in New England as an empire crumbles around me. I have the posture of studying holiness to undo patriarchy; I am joined to – indeed, I am saved by – other human beings who are wiser and more expert than I am at that particular project. I am learning to be humble and grateful and diligent in their presence.

The “I” in the preceding paragraph is a semantic convenience, of course. In your writing and in your speaking and in your living “I” comes forth in some other way. We share a form but it assumes other positions, other postures, the better to bring forth love.

There is a movement then in the direction of relationship with life, with love, and this relationship is not personal. It is already operative, already given. We don’t have to do anything to experience it; we have to simply see that what we are currently doing – our current relationships and modes of relating – are not helping but hurting. They are obstructing. And the real world – the real relationship – will slowly rise to meet us then. It is ever there awaiting us to grow tired of games and distractions.

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