Advertisements

Love in Romantic Relationships: Cultivating Self and Other through Friendship

Change is a dynamic engagement – a process of unfolding. I spoke about this in a recent post. Some of the best “life philosophies” offer insights into self-cultivation to live a more fulfilled life. Cultivation is growth, and self-cultivation is forming one’s own growth into the best version of yourself that you can be. I don’t mean this in the ways of modern self-help books of the business/marketing variety, although not to completely dismiss those either; rather, I’m trying to focus on how does one live a wise life? A compassionate life? A connected life?

This question may seem at odds with the abstract ideas of philosophy ranging from Plato’s forms to ideas of différance from Derrida. However, philosophy hasn’t always been abstract conceptual play. The best of it for the average reader has had a grounded concern about how to take care of yourself and your life. As Socrates famously said in Plato’s Apology: “For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons and your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul.”

2df4c82db274d651d077890c2b3a5d1e

This issue of taking care of self-cultivation comes up perhaps most strongly in our relationships with others. In grad school, we discussed Sartre’s famous line “Hell is other people” from No Exit, and the instructor countered with the idea that Heaven is other people. I think that this is simplistic to some extent, but there is a complete facet of our being that is revealed, enhanced, and informed by our interactions with others. In other words, if others are the set of forces that restrict and objectify us (“Hell is other people” — the point that Sartre is really making), then they are also the opposite — an interaction that opens possibilities and propels us beyond our limits (we might compare seeking advice from others in Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism). We are born into a world with other people and are the result of millions of years of evolution as well as a long development of human cultural groups. We are born into a long history and are part of it. Our possibilities as well as the horizons of our comprehension (what I can and cannot see, understand, and think) are shaped by this historicity — for example, no matter how much I read about the ancient Greeks and how well I might understand the norms of ancient Athens, I cannot live or see the world as one of them as a modern-day, American, heterosexual male. My “prejudices” (as Gadamer would call it) give me another understanding, another interpretation of life that I cannot simply fully replace by reading up on an alternative one. In any case, all of this and more are the set of extended corollaries to Heidegger’s lines in Being and Time: On the basis of this with-bound being-in-the-world, the world is always already the one that I share with others. The world of Dasein is a with-world. Being-in is being-with others” (trans. Stambaugh, p. 115-116).

Our modern ideals of romantic partnership are the most intensive of these possibilities. This is because modern romantic partnership has come to be conceptually formulated as a complimentary partner, a “soulmate”, who is meant to act in more or less all the standard ideas of friendship and more. Even if you laugh at my usage of “soulmate”, you probably have some view of romantic partnership as an idealized friendship and communal exchange of energy, support, and resources for achieving life goals and projects, and it’s important here to point out that this modern paradigm was not always the case — this concept has changed over time due to various pressures — and that again, the muddy concept of “love” comes into play here, a point I will touch on below but feel it worth linking another post I’ve written previously now.

With this in mind it’s worth looking at these things from a slightly different perspective — taking some old ideas and seeing what they can reveal for us about the difficulties and opportunities of romantic partnership — how it can be a restrictive hell or an opportunity for self-cultivation, heaven.

Aristotle discusses philia — friendship but also a particular kind of love, and isn’t friendship an instructive thing for us to consider regarding love? — near the end of his Nicomachean Ethics. His discussion is too nuanced for me to go over in-depth, but there are some key points I’d like to point to:

  1. Aristotle argues that there are 3 different forms of friendship, and furthermore, 2 of the 3 are only pale cousins of the form that is true friendship. True friendship is between good, excellent people (people who have developed excellent qualities through effort and deliberation — what the rest of the book is about), and it is based upon their recognition of each other’s excellence and their attempt to support that excellence. In other words, it’s friendship based on good in itself. The other 2 forms are: friendship based on usefulness and friendship based on pleasure.
  2. Friendship is an engagement, an economy of giving and receiving, and friendship is in the act of loving, not in the act of being loved.
  3. Friendship is akin to justice, which Aristotle discusses at greater length earlier in the book. As such, equality is an issue in friendship’s stability. Inequality only belongs in certain friendship dynamics (such as between a parent and a child), but that’s due to the specific roles at play, and these are arguably not the standard of friendship in general.

Here are a couple of quotes that strengthen these points:

Affection seems like a feeling, but friendship seems like an active condition, for affection is no less present for inanimate things, but loving in return involves choice, and choice comes from an active condition. And people wish for good things for those they love for those others’ own sake, not as a result of feeling but as an active condition. And by loving the friend, they love what is good for themselves, for when a good person becomes a friend, he becomes good for the one to whom he is a friend. So each of them loves what is good for himself, and also gives back an equal amount in return in wishing as well as what is pleasant; for it is said that “friendship is equal relationship,” and this belongs most of all to the friendship of the good. (trans. Sachs, p. 150)

So the friendship of people of low character becomes corrupt (for they share in base activities, not even being constant in these, and become corrupt in becoming like one another); but the friendship of decent people is decent, and grows along with their association, and they seem to become even better people by putting the friendship to work and by straightening one another out, fore they have their rough edges knocked off by the things they like in one another. Hence the saying “[you will learn] from what is good in the good.” (trans. Sachs, p. 180)

All of these points are crucial to what I’d like to say about long-term romantic relationships. These relationships, in our modern version of them (please watch the video I posted above), have grown to be a particular life venture that is both for our personal happiness and the success of personal home-life (the word “economics” is actually derived from ancient Greek as welloikonomia meaning “household management” and is discussed in other ancient philosophical texts), not to mention the usually monogamous relationship focused on sexual pleasure. In that sense, this relationship is meant to be a one-stop-shop for all three different kinds of Aristotelian friendship.

However, there’s a problem with this. Aristotle’s delineation of the excellent person describes a difficult life. Even if we aren’t purists and allow that other sociological formations could engender more or other key virtues, the problem remains that it requires a very practically engaged and examined life to be aware of these, value them, and develop them over time. In a sense, the likely mistranslated/mistaken Aristotelian quote of “Oh, friends! There are no friends!” is accurate: it seems impossible to be a “good” person up to the standards of the text, nevertheless to come across another such impossible being. As such, let’s take Aristotle’s ethical engagement that leads to excellence as an ongoing work in progress that cannot be said to have been successful until others look back on your life after death. It’s an aspiration for how to live a good life with others and how to become the best person you can be within that world with others (this is another possible reading that I take of Aristotle, personally). In this regard, a romantic partner should be interested in you in recognition of this project for happiness in this life: enhancing one’s personal excellence and becoming the best you can become. This would be loving the good as good in another person, and it would be recognizing that people change in relationship to the challenges and periods in life that they face — a process of engagement rather than a static entity. There’s a couple of popular misconceptions on romantic relationships and identity that I’d like to address before returning to the other two types of friendship.

You’ll often see memes on social media, or hear others speaking, about finding someone who accepts you for who you are, who deals with your insanity, or who loves your flaws, etc. There is some amount of truth to this. There should be compatible interests and styles in a romantic relationship, including patient support and acceptance, but the wording of many of these positions indicates that people think that a partner should give the speaker a blank check so to speak, allowing them to dig into these flaws as much as they want and just accept them as is. Furthermore, it assumes that these are core, permanent aspects of who we “are” that cannot be changed or should not be changed. There’s no talk in these of becoming a better person, working to treat the accepting partner better over time, or anything of the like. One could say that this emphasizes being loved over loving, almost to the extent of complete exclusion of the work entailed in a relationship to love the other back. That’s where these sayings become maladaptive and toxic, rather than good, and that’s not even real friendship based on my points above from Aristotle — failing to emulate true friendship (i.e. no interest in one’s excellent qualities or those of the partner), to emphasize loving as the key of relationship rather than being loved, and to engender equality in a relationship’s dynamic. While these sayings might sound nice in a sense of self-acceptance, Aristotle would tell us that we should focus on selfishness in relationships insofar as we choose our self-enhancement through relating with people who push us into our best, boosting up our excellencies, rather than passively looking for identity stasis in being loved without any need to change.

There are a couple associated problems with this that are also common misperceptions. Love isn’t just a passive feeling, and everything is not solidified and completed once it’s there. I’ve read recently a couples therapist’s advice that love is a verb, and Aristotle would concur. It’s an ongoing effort. That’s part of the exchange in the dynamic: the effort of showing up to the relationship and doing one’s part to honor and continue it. As Buddhism would tell us, all composite things are impermanent, and this especially holds for relationships that have no effort going into them. If love is a verb, then there’s action involved, and if friendship is in the loving rather than being loved and is about exchange, then one must do the action of love in order to maintain friendship/relationship.

This brings me back to speaking about the other types of friendship. They are both considered unstable because as we and our situations change in our lives, what brings us pleasure or is of use changes. Aristotle even relates these to lovers as examples, so it’s clear that it fits. There can be no stability of friendship in these types, and as such, a romantic relationship built predominantly on one or the other will struggle more to endure over the years. The only stability in friendship to be found is in the engagement with the good in another person as such. Ironically, seeing another person for who they are and accepting them is stable in them doing the same for you to both enhance your strengths and mitigate your flaws, not to simply “accept” them. Think on it: the most powerful and enduring friendships have a dose of tough love to push you beyond your faults, not those that endlessly enable them.

It seems, then, that for a relationship to succeed and for happiness to be found within it, love must be based in seeing the best that the person has in them — both already developed and as potential — and helping them to fully become that person; however, it must also balance this with the give and take of the other key aspects of this particular kind of relationship — going through the give and take and negotiation of what’s fair in terms of usefulness and pleasure. In this case, these will gravitate around income, spending, chores, pastimes, shared endeavors, and of course, sex (even whether sex and other particulars of these aspects of usefulness and pleasure will be completely exclusive between the couple or not). If over time, one partner feels neglected, taken for granted, or overlooked for usefulness and pleasure, the exchanges of these aspects of the relationship need revisited, discussed, and addressed, or growing resentment and feelings of inequality will doom the relationship: friendships cannot endure inequality unless its a specific dynamic that has been discussed and agreed to, for only then is it just and equal. These agreements could even be cultural in some cases: some cultures see the roles of man and woman in a relationship to be quite different, and it can even vary from region to region within parts of a supposedly hegemonic “Western” culture. For instance, some cultures would see it as the man’s role in such a relationship as to provide with the woman to look pretty, do chores, and offer emotional and sexual support. Those gender roles within a relationship are hardly so clear in more progressive cultures/regions, requiring a lot more discussion around how partners should support one another regarding the stresses of money, work, health, and sex. We could note here that these cultural differences of roles are where Aristotle’s evaluations of friendship in marriage differ from these, as he has dramatically different historical and cultural understandings of these roles, but even then, these analyses that draw from him fit his position that what is expected in a relationship of friendship depends on what is just for the roles in that relationship.

Love in long-term relationships is an elaborate balancing act of all the aspects of friendship with the deepest aspiration to change together with another person over time to the best potentials that each has within them. This is a tall order and yet a beautiful aspiration. One of the problems in relationships is that we don’t clearly perceive it as just that project, treating others merely as one or both of the two inferior forms of friendship (aiming to just pass time together as companions with someone else is not enough. That’s also a form of usefulness and pleasure without necessarily reaching the act of symbiotic self/other-development). If one is not able or willing to approach a relationship with these practical engagements with change, work, activity, exchange, and equality, a relationship will likely not last long and may not end well. If there’s any hope of inverting Sartre’s gloomy maxim that Hell is other people, it requires this emphatic activity of a friendship that manages life together and improves the excellence of each partner together.

Advertisements

The Emergence of Consciousness

I love reading philosophy. For years, I’ve yearned for people with whom I can discuss all the things I’ve read and the thoughts I’m constantly mulling over about this universe. I’m constantly on the way to wisdom — hence this blog and the ideas in it.

In the last year or so, this has even led to listening to philosophy podcasts. One I listened to a couple months back about consciousness left me miffed. I’ve been reading a lot about psychology, Buddhism, philosophy of mind, evolutionary theory, and nonlinear dynamics/complexity theory in the last few years, so I’ve got a lot of interest in these questions, not to mention my educational background in phenomenology. Consciousness is an interesting thing to ponder. It’s both the heart of and engine of all of our experience as well as one of the most profound mysteries of our mind.

Unfortunately, these philosophers didn’t see it with quite this open-minded wonder. They dismissed the idea of consciousness being an emergent process out of hand, preferring rather more staid ideas about the soul or panpsychism (the idea that consciousness exists in everything and can somehow aggregate). They even pish-poshed scientists who study these issues in depth. In some regard, this is precisely my experience with and what I would expect of types schooled in a more theological background in philosophy, like these men were.

The problem with emergent properties is that the term is vague, and it’s difficult to explain. I recently was reading about all the non-linear dynamics at play in a hurricane: the hot air, the moisture, the cycles of cooling air falling, and the churn of it rising again as it warms. This set of conditions (and I’m sure several more that I’ve overlooked in my brief and only marginally informed description) are a system with emergent properties.

Perhaps a better example is one that occurred to me as I walked home tonight. Have you ever heard that no two snowflakes are the same? I can’t speak to this assertion, and I would have to presume that such a theory is unverifiable — there’s no way to measure and compare every snowflake that falls, even in a minuscule flurry. However, it wouldn’t take many observations to note the wide variation in forms and that it’s extremely unlikely for any two snowflakes to be the same. However, the complexity of such a simple, small thing shows the power of nonlinear dynamics. A few variables can combine with strong sensitivity to small changes that can lead to an elaborate array of different results. These complex formations are emergent properties dependent on those variables.

5cc408ccff6d42255b78c48442541103

Now, if we can consider snowflakes as possessing emergent properties due to nonlinear processes at work, how could one even dismiss considering emergent properties as an explanation of the elaborate array of nonlinear processes at work in the human brain — various modules, neurotransmitters, and bioelectric currents, all coming together to create experiences that are more or less holistic experience (ignoring the aspects that are completely cut off from conscious awareness)? In fact, as a nonlinear system, these wholes that arise as some sort of sum of all these elaborate interactions must be emergent properties. The metaphysical discussion has to be tacked on top of that; it cannot simply replace the evidence based on ideological assertions or conceptual arguments. I’m reminded here of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. If consciousness is explored only in terms of concepts and arguments, it will be woefully misrepresented as pure reason in ways that have disconnected themselves from the observable data on the matter. This is simply no manner for philosophy to behave especially in this scientifically more advanced day and age than that of even 30 or 40 years ago.

This post is a bit of a step away from the standard discussions of this blog, but I hope it gives many new things to think about. If you have questions or want resources to look into these questions yourself, please contact me, and I’ll do my best to speak to these further or point you to better experts than myself.

The Design

*Click*…
Right into place
The position of rest
Purpose relaxed
Yet poised
One click away
From action

The pen’s form
Serves its purpose
A design
Essence preceding
Existence
We seek the same
Purpose, aim, meaning
In our lives
Yet they remain
Always already
A design in progress
An essence unfolding
Both hidden and familiar
Emptiness coming into…
Emergence
Don’t grasp
*Click*…

IMG_20170411_084706

Life, Death, and Change

Last night, I had a dream in which I went to the doctor and asked him to examine a deep groove in my skull – beneath the hair on the top of my head. It had always been there (in the dream) – a weakness in the shape of my head. He felt it and immediately became concerned. He started telling me that this could have some dire effects, but it was very unclear what kind of prognosis to expect. He sent me home, but on the walk home, I had a group phone call with him and my parents. He explained to all of us the potential medical difficulties that could arise from my particular brand of weak-headedness, and they were potentially sudden and fatal. He started explaining some of the most common and most severe difficulties, but as he started explaining, the phone connection dropped, and I didn’t get to hear any further explanation about what I was facing and what could happen. I felt that I was left hanging – uncertain and confused.

I awoke from this dream feeling pensive about mortality. In the dream, I had my demise placed right before me, but it was wrapped in a ball of “ifs” and “maybes” with no certainty about what would happen or when. The initial revelation of this felt quite shocking and scary, but as the dream went along, it felt much more subdued and distant. The question I awoke with was: “How is this different than day to day life?” I could very well go to the doctor today and be told the same thing – you have this weird condition that could be fatal, but we have no way of knowing. Isn’t that really just a metaphor for all the things that could possibly, maybe go wrong on any given day? Traffic accidents? Food poisoning? Random violence? A sunburn that gives rise to melanoma? The huge earthquake that will devastate the Pacific Northwest? This may sound dramatic, but our demise is always already sitting right in front of us as a potentially sudden and unforeseen event at any time. We can’t really plan for it. However, we go through life mostly unaware that this potential  is always there. We live blithely ignorant of it – fallen.

To extend further – we don’t see that we are always “dying” already. I am not the same person I was a year ago (definitely certain of that!). You might tell yourself that you are, but if you really sit with yourself in this moment and then remember how you felt, said, did things a year ago, five years ago, in your childhood, etc., you’ll find that you are not the “you” that you thought continued through all these. You’re a changing set of conditions and experiences. I find this clearest when I think back to my ideas and projects of childhood. I was obsessed with certain toys and pursuits – building up so much and putting so much effort into some interest. Then a year or two later, it was gone from my mind, almost never thought of again except in this activity of retrospective examination. Where did that passionate engagement go? It moved. It died. It changed into something else. We’re always changing into someone new. From a universal perspective, that’s all the larger death that this post discussed is: “I” cease to be, but my body’s energy/matter goes back into the systems and cycles of the universe’s ceaseless unfolding changes – just as it already is throughout my life, just more thoroughly, completely, and intimately.

IMG_0591

How do we face up to all of this with awareness? How do we be present to the change that happens in this very moment and in all moments? How do we let go of our fear of death so that we can face it, face living, with authenticity?


May this give you new perspective on your relationship with death and change in your life.

Gassho!

A Pause

What is it to be alive as a human being? Constantly, we aim forward towards the next achievement, the next escape, the next gratification. “We are always already ahead of ourselves.” At the same time: “We are unknown to ourselves.” We run forward on neverending tracks of light, seeking fulfillment and completion elsewhere, yet we do not see the tracks nor the pattern of our movement. We see not the chase of like and the fleeing from dislike. We ignore it and all else that does not fall into the dualism. The trinity: desire, aversion, and ignorance. Two fuel our journey, and the last keeps us from being aware of anything else but the journey without seeing it for the journey it is…

526d1cdcd0a6af3c35ee8c598ea4bfc4

A moment of pause then, so that we might finally look around — a moment of truly seeing: circumspection and introspection… Stop. Just be present. Your breath. Your heartbeat. The sweat trickling down your arm. Here. Now. This is life unfolding. All of it. Not the nostalgia for the past or your five year plan for the future.

We worry so much about being right — doing and saying the right things, making the right choices, or we constantly judge ourselves as good or bad — a juxtaposition against some idealized or future “self” — how we should have acted, what could have been done better — always found wanting or meeting expectations. However, these just keep us rocketing forward on the twin rails of desire and aversion. What if the only dichotomy that matters for this life, this tiny little heartbeat of universal time, is whether we awaken or remain dazed and confused? What would life be if we were to liberate ourselves of the journey on rails and walk along with the freedom to move otherwise?


“What is freedom? It is nothing more and nothing less, than life lived awake.” -Ken McLeod, “Reflections on Silver River”

May this help you take pause and live a life awake.

Gassho!

Rebirth

From dead earth
Life springs anew
Green stalks grow
Bright flowers bloom

Nature’s cycles
Birth, growth, death
Unfolding
In every breath

Before & after
We conceptualize
But Now is
Presence of our lives

Be with this
Each moment – rebirth
This emptiness –
Celestial mirth…

WP_20160321_17_45_34_Pro (2)

May this inspire you to presence in the rebirth of every moment. May spring’s blooms help with this inspiration.

Gassho!

On Memories

Here’s another philosophical entry from Morning Pages. This one jives on both hermeneutics (with some inspiration from my reading of the Tractatus by Wittgenstein as well) and Buddhism (at the end) with a final nod to some of the thoughts I encountered in David Loy’s The World is Made of Stories, a philosophical masterpiece of hermeneutics in its own rights. I hope that you enjoy and ponder your own experiences from this.


(The opening of the entry dealt with thinking back on an event from almost five years ago and memories of it.)

Trips into memory are so strange. I think that we can readily grab onto them too much. A memory is like a painting–an interpretation of a landscape and a moment of time. It’s a perspective–necessarily limited, and like a painting or a picture, the image itself fades with time, and our interaction with it now in the present is another interpretation. We see it from our current understanding, and it’s difficult to know/remember that our nostalgic reliving of a previous experience is an interpretation of an interpretation–not absolute, not complete. This is the beauty of it: our experience is artwork–a tapestry that is woven over and over again.

file0001482310676

Free image found at morguefile.com, like many others on this blog

Although it is a truth (I experience what I do; that is true), it is not the Truth. It’s not a science or an in-depth recording of the “facts” (we might point out here that even these are interpretations, but more methodical, at least). Understanding this can allow us to be more compassionate to ourselves and others. It can allow us the clarity to see our place in the universe… How can we find enlightenment if we are unfamiliar with the nature of our delusion? We can’t if we grasp with certainty and dogma onto the legitimacy of our perspective, our experience, as the Truth. We have to be open to see our story-ing and to try to see beyond it to other perspectives. Sometimes, revisiting a memory gives us just enough of a jolt of our current story in the act of juxtaposition that we are pulled beyond in just a moment… It’s not always the case that we cling to memories without the realization of interpretation; sometimes, they’re a reminder of just that–we are built of stories, all of them interpretations, all the way down…


 

May this help you see your memories and your experience with insight and wisdom.

Gassho!

 

Previous Older Entries