Relating with one another is integral for social and interpersonal harmony. This story is my response to different questions by two Steem communities — @tribesteemup and @ecotrain.
In Tribesteemup, the question was asked, What kind of relationship is most vital to long-term happiness: family, friendship, or romantic? My immediate reaction internally was that the most important relationship was that to my Self, of course.
In Gnosticism, Alchemy, Taoism, and even Neo-Confucianism a healthy awareness and relationship with one’s own Self is always highlighted. Even in Buddhism, this is implied as understanding one’s cravings is what allows one to transcend the suffering that comes from the attachment to such desires.
Even as I pondered that, something didn’t feel quite right about that knee-jerk response. It wasn’t until the following day when I read the EcoTrain Question Of The Week that I realised I wasn’t congruent with my response: What is the root of human conflict, what needs are not being met?
“The root of conflict?” I thought to myself. “The root of conflict is clearly the inability to relate to others.”
This is when something shifted internally, and I realised that the two questions elicited the same response within me. So I used my contemplation time to explore this: two ideas, seemingly different, and yet my psyche was clearly saying the answer to both was identical.
I realised there is something absurd about the notion of ‘relating to the Self’. This is a common trope in New Age circles, and I’m certainly guilty as charged. I now think this is linguistically sloppy, because the process in my understanding is not about how I relate to my Self-ness, but how I perceive and am aware of it. This is recursive thinking, and admittedly is a big part of the Eastern philosophical traditions: forming a controlled dissociation from the Self in order to critically examine it.
This is not a relationship, however. Relating implies an Other, something external to the one observing. Whilst it could be argued that the meditative dissociation (such as in Yogic or Taoist practices) creates this, it is not an actual separation into subject & object — it is simply the emulation of it, something we learn to model from observing relating with others.
We gotta live together
A relationship is formed every time I interact with another person; from deep, personal connections (such as with my partner or a family member) to superficial, momentary, or transactional connections (such as the hipster who makes me a coffee). My fascination with both Taoism and Confucianism is in part their examination and unique take on the notion of relatedness. Both philosophies share a common paradigm, exemplified by the early version Yīnyáng theory and found in the I Ching, the ancient Book of Changes which predates both these philosophical schools by almost a millennium.
Confucius in particular made a big deal about relationships. A society could not function harmoniously unless the relationships between people were sorted out. Influenced as he was by the Heaven‒Earth polarity, he considered that this polarity existed in all forms of interaction between people, regardless of whether it was the relationship between ruler/ruled, husband/wife, father/son. It is important to remember that Confucius was conditioned by a patriarchal culture, so his ideas in practice were rather limited. However, in later centuries Taoists would extend the idea to be somewhat more dynamic and fluid.
In each relationship there is always an active and a passive agent — for example, if someone is talking, the other is listening. A dynamic relationship is where the active/passive role continually shifts. In my example, Person A speaks, Person B listens; then the roles swap with Person B talking and Person A listening. One of the things that emerge from looking at relationships in this way is that it inherently promotes an idea of growth and evolution; the continual inter-play of active/passive between two people provides continual feedback, and thus change. Each agent learns something from the interaction, which feeds back into the system of interaction, which creates further learning and feedback, and so on and so forth.
With a little help from my friends
It is understood that when we relate to others, what we are finding connection with is some kind of (perceived) reflection of our innermost Selves; thus when we form bonds of love or friendship with others it is those commonalities we’re drawn to. Also, we are drawn to the differences in others in order learn from others, suggested by some of the theories around mirror neurons.
The relationships I treasure are those which allow me to grow and evolve. They can be with my daughter, my partner, or my friend. They can even be with complete strangers, and maybe even have a different quality in different contexts. Ultimately, the quality of any given interaction is going to depend on how open and trusting I feel in the moment; presumably that is also true for the other person.
I’ve noticed within myself that when I am feeling open and loving, every interaction I have holds something of value. I may have some insight after a brief conversation with a waitress, or something my daughter does inspires my creativity, or even watching interactions between strangers in a cafe teaches me something about how I behave in certain situations. Because I have opened my consciousness and been receptive to the information inputted via sensory systems, it changes how I perceive myself. I learn, I grow, I evolve.
On the other hand, when I am feeling less resourceful and shut off, no interaction I have with others — irrespective of who they are — will have this effect. If I am in pain (physical or emotional), or if I am feeling angry, sad, jealous, or afraid then I am more likely to react negatively to any interaction. I’m more likely to interpret their actions as a threat to my safety and security, and perceive them as dangerous. Because I am blocking the connection of relatedness, then these people are my enemies. they are no longer a source of potential growth, but a source of danger.
It isn’t that they don’t offer anything to me, rather it is my inability to open and receive what they express that creates the conflict. It’s not so much that the other is not providing what I need, rather that I am not receptive to what they offer. I’m blocking myself from gaining what I need.
This is what I think happens when people focus too much on differences. Instead of seeing difference as a source of new information and growth, it is seen as a threat to security. This to me is the reason for hatred, racism, and bigotry: a sense of self-importance and hubris. Instead, when we humble ourselves to believe that we can receive something of value from others, without preconceived filters or expectations, then we are truly open to broader horizons of understanding.
My answer to both questions is thus:
What kind of relationship is most vital to long-term happiness? Those that meet our personal needs through modelling, and create connections of inter-relatedness (empathy).
What is the root of human conflict? The inability to form connections of inter-relatedness (empathy).
Further reading on mirror neurons
Acharya, S., & Shukla, S. (2012). Mirror neurons: Enigma of the metaphysical modular brain. Journal of natural science, biology, and medicine, 3(2), 118–124. doi:10.4103/0976-9668.101878
Hickock, G. (2015). A Curious Commentary on a Book on Mirror Neurons and Other Tales of Scientific Misses: Response to Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia and to Glenberg. https://cpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com/sites.ucsc.edu/dist/0/158/files/2015/04/Hickok-Reply.pdf, accessed October 19, 2019
Rizzolatti, G., & Sinigaglia, C. (2015). A curious book on mirror neurons and their myth — Review of Gregory Hickok’s “The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition”. https://cpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com/sites.ucsc.edu/dist/0/158/files/2015/04/Rizzolatti-Sinigaglia-Review.pdf, accessed October 19, 2019.
Taylor, John Mark (2016). Mirror Neurons After a Quarter Century: New light, new cracks. Science In The News, Harvard University, http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2016/mirror-neurons-quarter-century-new-light-new-cracks/, accessed October 19, 2019