Over centuries of spiritual tradition, the anxiety has often been expressed that surrender and letting go will inevitably cause the spiritual practitioner to become a passive victim of whatever dominant force is at work in their world.
I heard strains of this quite legitimate concern in a comment made in response to “12 Symptoms of Spiritual Awakening #8” in which I commented on Saskia Davies symptom #9 in which she suggests that spiritual awakening will result in
A loss of interest in interpreting the actions of others.
So the question was raised in the comments section of yesterday’s post:
When someone is grumpy or short with us, we might think, “Oh. They are under a lot of stress right now. I guess that’s why they are being rude.” Does this mean we can say, instead, “Oh,” and walk away, and not deal with that person, if possible?
Do I need to try to understand the motivations behind a person’s behaviour, in order to empower me to take action and “deal with that person”?
The point of yesterday’s post was to underline the limited nature of my perspective. I may think I have understood someone and can explain their behaviour adequately, but my assessments are seldom accurate. The person himself will likely be only partially conscious of what influences lie at the root of his behaviour.
As the fourth century father of the Church Gregory of Nyssa cogently put it,
It is characteristic of divinity to be incomprehensible: this must also be true of the image. (Gregory of Nyssa c. 330-c. 395)
We humans are bewilderingly complicated and complex beings. Accepting the complexity of the human condition and my imperfect understanding however does not mean I will never take action in relation to another person’s behaviour and deal with how their behaviour may be affecting me. But, it does mean two things:
1. When I start with the humility to acknowledge that I do not understand what is going on, I will respond to what is going on from a more spacious, open and accepting place. Admitting my inability to understand another person, opens up the possibility of gentleness in my response. I shift from that pinched place of defensiveness to a more expansive open gracious place. My responses to a situation from this place may be strong, even forceful, but they will carry the aroma of compassion and wisdom.
2. Having acknowledged the limitations of my understanding, I will be less likely to respond to the person out of a perceived need for self-protection or a feeling of defensiveness. When I admit that I do not really know what is actually going on I am freed from the destructive illusion that your behaviour is somehow about me.
The problem with believing I have understood another person’s behaviour, is that this illusion hinders me from dealing with my own reactions to your behaviour. When I am confronted with a person who is “being grumpy or short” with me, I do not need to “deal” with the person. I need to deal with myself. I need to observe my own reaction and practice letting go of my need to change the person or seek to control the person’s behaviour.
My attempt to “understand” you simply lets you off the hook of dealing with your own behaviour. When I am free of the need to react to a person “being rude” to me, they are forced back upon themselves and eventually will need to deal with their own behaviour.
All spiritual teaching attempts to coax us to that place within ourselves where we find the inner strength, independence, and freedom that does not need to react or get caught up in the behaviour and drama of another person.
Etty Hillesum, in the midst of the horror, injustice and suffering of Nazi-occupied Holland wrote in her diary:
Tues. 29 Sept. 1942 – Ultimately we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world. 535, 536
Another person’s behaviour provides an opportunity for me to practice reclaiming “large areas of peace” in myself. Difficult situations are my opportunity to do my own inner work. Pain is the work-out room of the spiritual life. By standing my ground without losing my inner balance in the face of unpleasantness, I am developing the muscles of freedom and strengthening the place within myself where the behaviour of another person has no power to control me. This is true freedom.