Only two ways of relating to everyone and everything
Thou or It, the Wonder on the palm of your hand, and the Hindu legend that tells us where to find divinity
I’m diving straight in to the pool of relating this week with philosophy, psychotherapy, embodiment and Hindu legend. If anything piques your curiosity or appreciation, please write a comment, hit like, and/or feel free to share with others. Your support really means a lot.
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Please note: The below content includes reference to disordered eating. For more information on help with eating disorders in the UK, contact BEAT for advice and support.
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For over 15 years I struggled with disordered eating, an ongoing daily rhythm that would gain momentum as the day wore on, and collapse in exhaustion as I closed my eyes at the promise of renewal awaiting when I awoke. I read I needed to consume no more than 1200 calories to reach my target weight, a number that is so engrained on my thought processes it still, even after years of being free from an eating disorder, can surface like a ghost without its scare reminding me what not to do.
I saw my body as a walking object that existed to serve the demands of my mind, no matter how much it rallied against these: A growling tummy, zero energy, and shivering flesh despite everyone else sweating. I could only find temporary approval through fulfilling the arduous demands of my thoughts, and always running the risk of disapproval, contempt and loathing if my targets for the day were unmet.
If you’ve never had a disordered relationship to food, whether in the form of overeating, underrating, zealously watching your eating, this may seem at first reading entirely unrelatable, as I thought it was to my other behaviour. Then I looked closer and saw that my mode of relationship to myself and others was in the form of ‘thingness’, what philosopher Martin Buber would call ‘I-It’.
I was a thing to myself.
From the way I practised Yoga, to the way I spoke with people, and how I marched through the park walking my dogs was goal-oriented, based on what I could gain through my efforts, what item I could tick-off the to-do list. Like many things to do with the psyche, this was not a conscious choice but one that was most familiar and lauded by my teachers and employers, by the magazines I read, by everything I’d be told success relies upon. It served some kind of purpose, but it was a purpose that left me hungry - literally and figuratively - for more.
The emptiness was undeniable. I felt separate. I was only relating to myself only as an ‘It’ just as so many of us do when we can’t see beyond our goals, achievements, and ideas of ‘functioning’.
What changed for me was starting Gestalt Therapy, my first brush being on a Yoga intensive in India, followed a year later by personal therapy. I didn’t realise it at the time, but my then-therapist’s modality, Gestalt, is indebted to Martin Buber’s ‘I-Thou’, which occupies one end of the relational pole, and ‘I-It’ sitting on the other.
It’s super important to stress at this point that as with all polarities, both sides are vital in living with more balance, choice, and integration. If we don’t meet one end, then we don’t consciously choose the opposite, we instead do this on autopilot.
Whereas ‘I-It’ can be seen as wanting to do, achieve, and attain from the other, ‘I-Thou’ is about the openness of being without agenda in relationship. It’s where both parties, whether that’s me with you, me with a tree, or me with my dog, can surrender to the other’s existence without needing anything from the moment. It’s a surrender to what is happening between me and you/tree/dog.
Without agenda, my therapist would listen with curiosity about my troubles simply allowing me to show myself as I was in that moment whilst offering himself not through advice, but his authentic responses, his way of being. Although it wasn’t a walk in the park - therapy often isn’t! - I felt seen for the first time, and there were moments of great ease, flow, an embodied sense of two people aware of their own presence and the other’s presence meeting one another.
Whereas the ‘I-It’ can be decided on in advance with a motive (i.e. I’m going to order a cappuccino from the barista/I’m going to help this person to achieve their goals/I’m going to have sex in order to orgasm) the ‘I-Thou’ is more of a stance which carries the hope of happening with the acceptance it may not. That sounds pretty radical in our goal-oriented, follow-XYZ-to-achieve-your-dreams-kinda-lives!, but in creating the space to allow this stance to have the possibility to flourish when the circumstances allow, I now have the choice to wear my blinkers when I need to do, and take them off so I can simply be with.
A signature of doing, of I-It relating, is labelling which is evidently seen in the way we can relate to mental illnesses. So often a person will be referred to as a depressive, angry, narcissistic etc, which can be helpful in signposting and getting help, but if we take this reductionist position to the limit, we forget to see all the ways the person is not only these labels. In relation to the earth, we see a tree as a resource for oxygen, paper, and energy but fail to see what is beyond these cognitive labels. Or we strongly identify with our roles of gender, parent, occupation and qualities, and in so doing, we hide our interconnected wholeness in plain sight and that of others.
We all have the capacity to express both ends of the polarity, and this is healthy, the ‘It’ can take us forward, get things done, and is part of growth, but we can so often get lost in our roles and status that we forget the shining light of existence that exists beyond. What comes with I-It is separation, of bounds. What comes with I-Thou is connection and boundlessness, the meeting of existences. And with both comes the art of living, of being in relationship.
The Dalai Lama is a beautiful example of someone expressing both sides of the polarity, where he inhabits the role of spiritual leader of Tibet whilst seeing all of mankind as part of his family with him neither above or below anyone.
I have a big temptation to give-in to what’s expected in wellness, which is to offer some tips, but at this point, I’m going to resist this urge and trust that the intention behind this post of opening up, offering, and accepting the outcome.
Instead, I’ll leave you with Martin Buber:
The primary word I–Thou can be spoken only with the whole being. Concentration and fusion into the whole being can never take place through my agency, nor can it ever take place without me. I become through my relation to the Thou; as I become I, I say Thou.
All real living is meeting.
No aim, no lust, and no anticipation intervene between I and Thou. Desire itself is transformed as it plunges out of its dream into the appearance. Every means is an obstacle. Only when every means has collapsed does the meeting come about.
Those lines that you see on your hand could already be seen on an ultrasound when you were just 25 week old foetus, meaning that already at this nascent pre-birth age, we had formed repetitive movements that left their mark. Gazing at my hands, my partner’s, or a stranger’s, and I’m struck by how different our lines are, lines that are formed in the womb and are the hallmark of our uniqueness. Every movement we’ve made from the formation of our hands to this very moment is recorded on our palms: every clench, every hand we’ve shook, every pen we’ve held, every person we’ve embraced, every night of sleep, every up and every down is there announcing the brilliance of our individuality connected to people, things, and earth.
Gaze at your palms taking in the lines that you see. Without analysis or interpretation, can you allow yourself to take in that these very lines began when you were a foetus at just 12 weeks old? How do you feel towards your hands?
Ask another person - you may want this to be someone you’re comfortable with! - to show you their hand. How is it to take in your differences displayed on your palms, differences that have followed the same path of human development?
How is it to witness your own uniqueness and another’s?
This Hindu legend is a teaching I’ve carried with me for many years and encapsulates the existence, the divinity within each of us that can be so easy to forget.
According to an old Hindu legend, there was a time when all human beings were gods, but they abused their divinity. So, Brahma, the chief god, decided to take the divinity away from them and hide it somewhere they could never find it.
Brahma called a council of the gods to help him decide where to hide the divinity. “Let’s bury it deep in the earth,” said the gods. But Brahma answered, “Humans will dig into the earth and find it.” Some gods suggested, “Let’s sink it in the deepest ocean.” But Brahma said, “No, Human will learn to dive into the ocean and will find it.” Then some gods suggested, “Let’s take it to the top of the highest mountain and hide it there.” Brahma replied, “Human will eventually climb every mountain and take up their divinity.” Then all the gods gave up and said, “We do not know where to hide it, because it seems that there is no place on earth or ocean that human beings will not eventually reach.”
Brahma thought for a long time said, “We will hide their divinity deep into the center of their own being, Humans will search for it here and there but they wont look for the divinity inside their true selves”
All the gods agreed that this was the perfect hiding place, and the deed was done. And since then, humans have been going up and down the earth, digging, diving, climbing, and exploring, searching for something, which already lies within themselves.
“Divinity lies within us all”.
Thank you for reading, I look forward to sharing in a fortnight’s time.
Love your vulnerability and deep wisdom based on self exploration Charlene. Thanks for sharing 🙏🏻❤️
I can relate to what the article describes in regards to my work as a doctor. There are certain requirements and expectations of me of how to perform in my role and of course I attempt to fulfil such as good as I can. I understand that as expressing the role of being a doctor, the I-IT between me and the patient. And I always try to balance that with I-THOU moments in which there are simply two humans in a room, and I attempt to be present, genuine and not on automatic pilot, but expressing from the heart. There is a very different feel to that for me and usually I am aware that the other person also notices and is receptive of this moment of I-THOU.