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  • H James

The Problem Of Other People

'When we do something with a complicated mind, in relation to other things or people, or society, our activity becomes very complex.'

- Shunryu Suzuki

The overall theme of this website is that the Ways of Liberation - methods and ideas from Asia dating back thousands of years - have much to show us about our modern Western life, and help with problems this life so often creates. When it comes to the issue of how we get on with each other what do these 'ways' offer (beyond advising us to be more compassionate)? Practices such as meditation and yoga are often practiced alone after all, and it has been argued that practices like meditation are just ways to escape the real world rather than engage with it.

On the other hand the Western tradition seems a lot more interested in our relationships. Psychotherapy, counseling, self-help culture and articles on social media all emphasise how we get on (or don't get on) with other people. We have our subconscious dynamics beneath our day-to-day relations, we have the games we play with each other, there are books on how to become more confident or how we can influence others, and magazine articles and online posts overflow with articles on relationships. Still, despite their often valuable insights I still think there is something missing, an unresolved conflict.

In our Western culture most of us are expected to follow a certain 'life path'; of school, maybe a period of higher education or training followed by an adulthood spent in work, then finally some form of retirement. Any breaks in this pattern are understood to be just those, brief time-outs before getting back to the important stuff. In addition while our relationships with colleagues and friends can be fairly fluid, we are normally expected to form a lasting relationship with another person at least once in our lives, ideally with a family as a result. In any case, the dreaded fate of ending up single is to be avoided whatever the cost (a taboo which invariably falls harder on women).

Deviating from these fairly strict social expectations is difficult. While there may not be any obvious issue with not following this path, for anybody who does stray there is often the unmistakable sense that one is outside the norm. Yet while we are unmistakably expected to conform to the above social patterns, we are at the same time bombarded with the message that we are individuals; we are free, we can be whoever we want to be. Here we come to the 'unresolved conflict': you are an individual, responsible for your success and answerable for your failures, but at the same time if you really do act independently - if you stray from the socially conditioned path - you risk being an outsider.

Graffitti in Croydon, South London

Yet we are social beasts. As floating blobs of individuality, encased in our skulls and ferried around by our bodies, we spend most of our time engaged in social activity. Work is essentially social in nature and our leisure time is normally spent with other people. Even when not actually engaged with others, say relaxing on the sofa watching a box-set, we are still watching other people do things. While this social activity is essentially who we are if we are not careful we can fall prey to its less healthy side; anxiety. Almost all anxiety is social anxiety. Of course we have our fears: fear of becoming ill, being attacked, losing an ability, losing a loved one - but these are fairly straightforward, bog-standard, crippling fears. Social anxiety on the other hand is far more subtle and pervasive and unless we pay attention to it, it can influence almost all of our decision-making and thinking.

Part of the reason comes back to our survival instinct: those deep parts of our brain that ensured our survival for so many millennia. An essential part of survival was staying part of the pack. A mortal fear of loneliness is not simply some first-world angst but an essential survival need. In their book The Spirit Level, professors Pickett and Wilkinson explain how 'social interaction has been one of the most powerful influences on the evolution of the human brain' and highlight just how much of our mental processing is dedicated to social interaction: 'Human beings are preoccupied with social interaction, with what people have said, what they might have been thinking, whether they were off hand, rude..., why they behaved as they did, what their motivations were, and how we should respond.'

Social acceptance is therefore crucial to well-being and The Spirit Level goes on to provide overwhelming evidence to show the profound harm done to social cohesion by economic inequality; evident in increased crime rates, addiction, suicide rates and mental health problems in countries with high levels of inequality. They also show how damaging 'social-evaluative stress' can be to our physical health. Indeed, they cite studies which show how being socially excluded or judged causes significant damage to the body.

We live in an era where technology, as well as social and economic conditions, have vastly accelerated this social-evaluative stress. Most of us are familiar with that disconcerting feeling of being unable to 'switch off'. Our survival instinct is continually being triggered by this environment. Moreover our 'newer', social brain is also constantly under pressure: In the workplace with its increasing demands, and insecurities; in never-ending bureaucratic tasks; in the world of social media available at all times on smartphones; and of course we have friends and family to deal with, not always easily. To quote the The Spirit Level: 'conflicts and tensions with other people are by far the most distressing events in daily life in terms of both initial and enduring effects on emotional wellbeing'.

All of this conspires to create a 'perfect storm' of conditions: A survival instinct hard-wired to evaluate every social threat or advantage; a society that promotes individuality yet within a strict set of rules; an unequal economic system resulting in continual 'socially evaluation' (plus bills and debt); busy, often repetitive, working lives; an advertising and media industry which thrives on insecurity and fear; and a social media which leads us to constantly be judging and comparing our lives to others. The results can be seen in the high figures for people afflicted by mental illness, roughly one in four in the U.K. and U.S. For many of us feelings of anxiety, exhaustion, fatigue, stress, fear, guilt, inadequacy and so forth have become almost a familiar background noise. 'Functional mental illness' if you like - a testament to how resilient people generally are, but by no means a normal state of affairs.

(Here again, responsibility for mental health is usually shifted onto the individual. In the United States for example 16 million people are taking anti-depressants, but is it perhaps not time to shift our focus away from the individual and instead interrogate a society and culture which results in so many unhappy people?)

To summarize we have something of a problem - but it isn't really other people. The fact is we are fundamentally social creatures. Our survival instinct is hardwired to be social and our modern brains grew so that we could be social. We know that getting on well with other people is important to our wellbeing yet live in a culture which seems to deny this reality. Social success has been perverted by the cult of competition to mean individual success and we are pushed more and more to try and 'be someone'. Yet I can only 'be someone' in relation to other people: what they expect of me, how I want to appear to them. Still it is precisely this need to 'be someone' that lays behind so much mental strife and exhaustion. Liberation, then, perhaps comes when I appreciate my inter-dependence on others but don't get caught up in this game of trying to 'be someone'.

How to do this? To simply say 'be yourself' isn't enough - it's right, but it's a bit like saying to someone in a hospital bed 'be healthy!'. To start with it is necessary to get rid of the question of blaming oneself for mental distress. If anything we have seen that the cards are stacked against us: social rules, instinct, work, economic inequality, media, technology... the fact is that we are unusually tolerant to these stresses, often to the point of burn-out. Non-blaming is not the same as not taking responsibility for our well-being - but to take responsibility one needs to see clearly the causes behind things, and blame just clouds this by making all causes - external and internal - the fault of the individual. Blaming others is equally pointless - because they are also caught up in the game, probably more so. So trying to live beyond 'blame and praise' is a simple way of liberation, albeit one that requires knowing when it is happening (which is surprisingly often)!

Another starting point is, of course, you as you are now, before thinking about what you should be or should be doing. In Tibet there is a Tantric practice involving going off to live in a cave for several weeks, to be completely alone, in order to clear away the influences of other people - their 'thought-energy' - and so come to a clearer insight as to one's own directions in life. It is a nice idea, but going off the grid like this isn't really practical for most of us. Besides, you can be physically away from society but still have its 'thought-energy' in your mind. Conversely you can be in a busy city and have a clear mind - if you can manage to drop your ideas about what you should be doing or stop trying to 'get somewhere'. Most of us have also experienced the alienating loneliness of city-life. The point is, I think, to embrace loneliness now and again and see it not something to be avoided but an opportunity for that energy of needing to 'be someone' to leave the body.

And of course we have meditation practice, which has been shown to be as effective as pharmaceuticals at managing depression and anxiety. Why this is so is a little beyond the scope of this blog, but for now I would say that, aside from providing a much needed time-out, meditation requires one to be compassionate and patient with oneself, and this naturally seems to spill over to other people. Meditation therefore is an escape, but it is not an escape from other people so much as an escape from my ideas about other people: ideas which stop me from really being a part of things. So really meditation, yoga, the various philosophies of the ways of liberation are not escapes from real life but actually a way to engage with life and other people fully and authentically.

Until the next time,


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