Learning to hold our images of each other lightly
HOW THINGS OUGHT TO BE
Almost all psychological suffering can be traced to our attachment with images of how the world ought to be. This was Siddhartha Gautama’s big realisation on his way to becoming Buddha. The same lesson can be seen in the writings of many spiritual teachers throughout history, from Lao Tzu and Saint Augustine to more recent leaders like Jiddu Krishnamurti and Joanna Macy.
They all deeply understood that there are the ways we expect things ought to be, and there are the ways that things actually are— and in that gap, psychological hardship, confusion, and suffering can arise if we remain too tightly attached to our expectations.
A Contemplative Practice
We can explore the gap between ‘ought’ and ‘is’ through engaging deeply with the images we create of one another.
Over the following few paragraphs, I will try to unpack what the image attachment process looks like and why it leads us to so much confusion, disharmony and suffering.
Let’s go into it:
I hold an image of you.
An image I like. An image I feel attached to.
I find certainty in that image. I find familiarity. I find security.
Of course, the image isn’t actually you. It’s just a story I am holding. An idea. A model created as a result of old conditioning, preconceptions, past experiences and prior expectations colliding with an incoming stream of sensory data.
You are alive. Dynamic. Complex. Growing. Ever-changing. Yet, the image I construct is limited. Fixed. Static. A statue-like character from the past. Frozen. Dead.
So in an effort to hold onto an image of you, I blind myself from your aliveness.
I blind myself from your ever-changing, constantly growing nature. And in the inevitable failure to maintain the image, I cause myself distress and become a constraint on your freedom.
As Anthony De Mello often says ~ "The thing that is blind is not love but attachment.”
By holding tightly onto an image of who you are, I also construct a dependency that breeds fear and a desire to control. I fear losing the image of you. That fear motivates me to maintain the image. To secure the story. To do what I can to conserve its existence.
We both suffer as a result of a tight attachment to the images I create of you.
IMAGE CREATING CREATURES
Here’s the challenge. I cannot stop myself from constructing these images of you. Neither can you prevent yourself from creating images of me.
In the same way that plants grow towards the light, flowers blossom, and bees deliver pollen to the hive, human minds naturally construct images of ourselves and others. Any attempt to halt this process is feeble.
All I can do is learn to embrace more change and complexity and not become complacent in settling for simple, comfortable stories of who you are.
One way to loosen the grips of image attachment is through becoming more comfortable with a faster image refresh rate—an accelerated cycling through the creation process. Like a life cycle, images of you—born, live, die, arise, embrace, let go, repeat. The faster I can cycle through the images of you, the clearer I get to see the full and boundless beauty of your true being—like a sketched flipbook character coming to life as the artist turns through the pages at a rapid pace.
To let the images of you continously die is to allow you to come alive in my world. To hold onto a particular image of you is to stop you from ever really entering.
HOLDING IMAGES OF YOU LIGHTLY
What can I do to hold my images of you more lightly?
What can I do to not get so heavily attached to them? What can I do to allow the images to arise, fully embrace the images as they move through me, and then let them go as new ones arise? How can I learn to look forward to the new images and so avoid the sticky traps of certainty and familiarity? To never let the dust settle over my eyes.
Protestant-like suppression and avoidance is not the way:
I know that avoiding the feelings of attachment is not the way forward here. Neither is suppressing the desire to chase or protect an image of you. Both approaches go nowhere at best and can result in dangerous forms of spiritual bypassing at worst.
Why? Because, although there may be understanding in mind, if the realisations haven’t been embodied at a deeper, more emotional level, inner conflict and disharmony will likely arise.
We easily get trapped in chasing non-attachment. We place it on a pedastal and idealise it. To do so is to repeat the same process of constructing a story of how things ought to be. It just another form of well disguised image attachment.
Jiddu Krishnamurti gets at this problem nicely when he says ~ “Attachment is gratifying, but perceiving the pain in it, we want to be gratified in another manner, through detachment. Detachment is the same as attachment as long as it yields gratification.”
GIVING TOTAL ATTENTION TO THE MOMENT
The answer to the problem can initially seem paradoxical.
To hold an image of you more lightly, I have to fully embrace the feelings of attachment, the fear and the desire that a tightly held image creates.
In other words, if I am attached to an image of you, I have to immerse myself in the whole nature of the image I am attached to. I have to acknowledge the attachment and the associated feelings. I have to accept the situation fully as the truth of what is, right now.
Only through this acceptance and embrace can I begin to realise how the image limits me from really seeing and being with you fully—and how it causes confusion and suffering for both of us.
Why? Because it is only through honestly being, feeling and seeing the consequences of the image firsthand that I can let go of it and welcome the next image of you as it arises.
Done right, the dropping of images is a very natural and effortless process because it has resulted from seeing things as they actually are rather than how they ought to be. Like any real danger we come across—when it is clearly seen, we naturally move away from the danger without thought or effort. The seeing invokes the action.
SEEING invokes ACTION.
No thought is required. No choice is required. No effort is required.
Real insight, love and compassionate action are separated only by the constructed boundaries within minds. The truth is that they are one and the same.
“Do what is right at a given moment and leave it behind”, as Ramana Maharshi famously said.
That’s it! But, just like this entire essay, that statement is meant as an observation, not a prescription. To deliberately try to ‘do what is right and leave it behind’ is to get lost in another story of how things ought to be.
All we need to do is show up to where we are. Everything else will unfold as it must.
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