"Admit something: Everyone you see, you say to them, “'Love me.'"
For instance, the phrase that opens this post demonstrates our great need for positive regard from others. So strong is this need that our souls are actually imprisoned by it, though we are almost always unconscious of this fact, or at least burying such awareness beneath our psychological defense mechanisms so quickly that it is easily dismissed. Because of this, I find that it often takes a lot of convincing to get people to see their susceptibility to "the gaze of other." Hence this post, which aims to convince of this very fact, and, once convinced, to suggest how to "use the force" for the good.
Above and to the right is a short video, entitled "Still Face Experiment." In this video, Dr. Tronick demonstrates an infant's (6 month old) need for positive regard from its mother. It begins with the mother giving positive regard, the natural response of a parent to an infant. Then, the mother is instructed to withdraw her attention from the infant, for a brief instant. The mother quickly returns her attention to the infant but with an intentionally nonresponsive countenance. She holds this nonresponsive countenance for two minutes, during which the infant shows increasing signs of obvious distress. The point of all this is to demonstrate that we humans are hard wired for positive feedback from others from birth, and, the more positive the nature of the feedback the better!
Now, you may think that this strong need for positive regard from the other is a necessary requisite of the parent-child relationship that is outgrown as a child develops and becomes more independent. This is certainly not the case. It is the power of the gaze of the other that makes the late teen peer group experience so important (Any even quasi attentive parent can tell you that!). It is the power of the gaze of the other that is behind the multi-billion dollar health and beauty industries. It is the power of the gaze of the other that keeps one on edge in the workplace. It is the power of the gaze of the other that brings conformity to political parties and nationalist sentiments. And, it is the power of the gaze of the other that makes solitary confinement such a powerfully punitive punishment. These are but the tip of the gaze iceberg (which can only be threatened by a warming of hearts, not the globe).
In fact, if one were to develop the practice of introspection when one notices a negative feeling state within oneself, one could very likely trace that feeling state to an experience or thought (memory or imagination) in which one experienced negative regard in the gaze the other. Likewise, when one notices a positive feeling state within oneself, one could very likely trace that feeling state to an experience or thought (memory or imagination) in which one experienced positive regard in the gaze the other. If such a thought experiment remains unconvincing, you could try a real life experiment by delivering a negative gaze to the next person you meet (I DON'T recommend this, per se) and watch for the shift of that person's feeling state. You will quickly come to see the truth of the matter, namely, that from the moment we are born to the moment we die, we are highly susceptible to the gaze of the other. Such susceptibility imprisons the soul.
To recognize the susceptibility one has to the gaze of the other is the beginning of one's freedom. (This is why psychodynamic work is so important on the spiritual path. Spiritual transformation is not possible without psychological freedom, on which more, perhaps, a few posts down the road.) Equally powerful to the experience of becoming free of the gaze of the other is the recognition that follows on the heels of such freedom, namely, that "the gaze" is a dynamic experience between the gazer and the gazee. Since we have been discussing the gazee, let's end with a few words about the gazer.
Given that we humans are so susceptible to the gaze of the other, it follows that to be the gazer is to possess great power ("With great power comes great responsibility!" Egads, two superhero reference in one post. What would my high school English teacher say?!). What, then, shall one do with such power? Shall we look out upon the world with stone cold eyes, prompting negative emotional states in others? Or, shall we look out upon the world with loving eyes, prompting positive emotional states in others? As for me, I think the world is a little too poor in love and goodness these days. I seek to affect the counterbalance...
...to wit, Hafez:
Honey! That scoundrel reason is running loose in the neighborhood again!
He’s digging up the seeds of faith we planted when we saw the first robin this spring!
He’s scrawling skeptical graffiti on our garage door - in BIG RED LETTERS!
He’s peaking in the windows of our carefully constructed psyches!
Before you know it, he’ll be holding all our hearts ransom with syllogisms!
My Dear, you are overreacting.
He’s merely doing what all youngsters do.
It’s all part of growing up!
What he needs is a good influence in his life, that’s all.
Why not send Love out to play with him for a while?
I don’t know…
He’s a bad influence, that kid.
He never lets Love get a word in edgewise and he’s so insensitive to others.
I think it’s time to call the cops!
Recognition of the inherent tension between heart and mind is ages old. For instance, Plato, who along with Socrates is often credited with laying the foundation of Western civilization, sought to ban the arts from his Republic because the arts stir emotions, which in turn wreak havoc on reason. On this same theme, Plato elsewhere relates his allegory of the chariot, in which he describes reason as a charioteer struggling to manage two horses - our noble and ignoble instinctual tendencies – which lead us in opposite directions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chariot_Allegory (A similar allegory is found in Hinduism’s Katha Upanishad: https://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe15/sbe15012.htm).
Regarding the tension between heart and mind, the famous phrase of Blaise Pascal also comes to mind: "The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing." What did Pascal mean by this? Did he mean that the mind is oblivious to our emotional states? Or, did he mean that the mind cannot comprehend the effects of our emotions upon us, e.g., “Love is blind.” Perhaps he meant something else entirely? Regardless, like Plato before him, Pascal saw a vast chasm separating heart and mind.
We live in a time when the tension between heart and mind is exacerbated by the fact that western culture disproportionately rewards thinking over feeling. From academics to the workaday world, people receive kudos for solving problems and having new insights. Design a jet engine or build a better mousetrap and you could be set for life. Contrariwise, author a poem or compose a piece of music and, unless you are one in 1 million, you’ll be lucky to pay the rent.
The tension between heart and mind shows up in the religious sphere as well. Indeed, so much of religion is mentally centered these days that religion rarely gets beyond the mental affirmation of creeds or rational debates about the nature of God. But is this what people really want from religion? I think not (Sorry, Descartes!). I think what people really want from religion is spiritual experience. (This is why the phrase “spiritual but not religious” is so en vogue these days.) Given this, we need to learn to suspend the mind at times in order to allow the heart to emerge as a valid way of knowing and experiencing the greater reality that upholds us - for it is the heart, not the mind, which has the capacity for religious experience.
By saying this I am not suggesting that we deprecate reason in the name of emotion. The mind has its place in the religious life. Creeds are important. Theology is important. But so, too, is spiritual experience. With this in mind, I want to suggest that we learn to balance our religious lives with spiritual practices that get us beneath the mind and into the heart, for it is in the heart that we shall feel the connection to the greater reality that upholds us. So, take the time to sit in silent meditation every day, or chant, or sing, or dance, or pick up a flute… Give the heart a myriad of ways to help guide you on the path…
I will spare you from my speech about reason and books,
And let you hear it from the harp and the lute, who tell it best.
Splash! Godot wasn’t taking in the scene but becoming part of it, already cresting the once still water. Elbow deep, he turned to me with that particular stare he has that communicates, “Well, I’m waiting? Isn’t this why we are here?!” Before doing my duty I had to take an extra moment to absorb it all. Godot traipsed impatiently while I watched this thought cross my mind: “It would be so awesome, actually to be in that scene myself, maybe standing in the midst of that angelic mist on the far shore, like Adam surely did innumerable mornings in Eden...” [No. I am not a creationist. It’s literary license… ;-)]
Then, with a few whirls to gain momentum, I let the bumper fly. I love that moment of silence as the bumper arcs through the air, the magic of physics keeping it aloft just long enough to create a brief, meditative vision, until - another splash! Off swims Godot and while he retrieves said bumper, my mind returns to that Eden like scene. And, just as quickly, I realize the absurdity of that vision. I already am standing in the midst of that angelic mist on the far shore, like Adam surely did innumerable mornings in Eden! I had simply failed to see it because of my perspective. And what perspective was that, pray tell? It was the dualistic perspective we all inhabit when we are ego identified.
It is natural to be identified with our egos but when we are, we are also trapped in a false, dualistic perspective. That is, when ego identified I experience myself as subject and everything that is “not me” as object. Hence, I, the subject, did not experience myself as being part of this morning’s exquisite scene - the object. Such dualistic perspective is the cause of our perceived alienation from life, which in turn is the cause of a great deal of our suffering - on which more in some future post.
However, once I realized the absurdity of my Eden like vision I was able to become free of the false, dualistic vision of the world I was experiencing. With a simple shift of attention I became unified in a seamless whole, as in that Eden like state wherein Adam and Eve walked in union with God - until someone told them they were naked (yet another post for another time, or, if you wish, you can catch me sermonizing on that topic here on YouTube.)
What I am speaking about here is what is called "advaita" in the Eastern mystical traditions; the unity of Being beneath appearances. This is a vitally important theme, both for the mystical experience and for the ethics that it entails.
If this is all starting to wax too philosophical, consider Hafez’s simpler, more humorous take on the same theme:
“I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty.”