We Are Divided and Whole

We must grapple with our internal contradictions. Most of us go about our days only dimly aware that such contradictions exist. A person may spend their days accusing others of being controlling and manipulative and fail to recognize how this behavior controls and manipulates those around them. I may argue passionately for tolerance and religious freedom for some particular groups, and suddenly realize I become harsh and intolerant toward a few particular groups that I just cannot accept for one reason or the other.

When I was younger, I used to say that people seem to turn into the things they hate as we grow older. My friends would adopt particular fashions or claim certain political opinions “ironically,” only for those postures to become permanent and genuine. People who hate their parents find themselves acting like their parents. Once again, the word enantiodroma is salient, that psychological tendency for things to become their opposites.

The mystic Gurdjieff spoke about “buffers” within the self that keep us unconscious of these contradictions. We can see these buffers and contradictions more easily in others than ourselves, and we certainly become incensed by the hypocrisies of others while remaining fiercely protective of our own. The ego, that part of ourselves that filters experience to convince us we are consistent with our beliefs about ourself, feels threatened by the implication that this coherence is an illusion.

The ego is like the command center of the self, an empty chair that could be occupied by any number of different parts. A part of self who identifies as a loving father may sit in the chair and abruptly be displaced by a part of self that is fed up with people taking advantage of him and doesn’t care who gets hurt. Without the benefit of self-observation, the ego is unable to differentiate who is sitting in the chair, and responds to whomever takes charge. Even if we act with total incoherence or hypocrisy, the ego will justify the action, deny it ever happened, or find some other way to maintain its story of consistency. We need to develop a center of awareness that can hold and include all these different pieces.

Becoming conscious of contradictions upsets us, because many of them cannot be easily reconciled. I cannot say that the dutiful son is me and the lazy comfort-seeker is some bizarre interloper. I can say that both have something important they want, and their wants can feel in conflict. Making the conflict conscious, however, enables us to become more integrated and more able to direct our lives. When the buffers are firmly in place, then our lives are being lived for us, unconsciously directed by these things we refuse to see. We lose touch with our core values. We become the things we hate and believe that’s what we wanted all along.

We see this occurring at the levels of Congressional gridlock, partisan politics, and the rhetoric around our international interventions. On one hand, we may call ourselves a nation dedicated to freedom and individual autonomy, and yet we may endorse torture or extrajudicial drone strikes. We tolerate the erosion of civil liberties to protect the freedom symbolized by those civil liberties. We have to wrestle with these questions in public conversation. We have to weigh the desire for safety and strength against the values of liberty and individual rights.

Self-observation and inquiry are powerful tools for becoming conscious of our inner contradictions. We can do this through sitting in meditation and watching the flow of thought and emotion every morning. We can go to therapy and sit with someone who can hear us and gently lead us to our incongruities. We can look at the people who really stir up a strong reaction in us, good or bad, knowing that those charged feelings often lead back to something within us that we do not yet see or claim.

One exercise might be to commit some time to studying a story or belief about ourselves, something we think, say, or do so often that it becomes the experience of life. Say you never feel like anyone understands or listens to you, and this causes a lot of distress in your life. Self-observation can begin by spending a week with the intention to notice every time you feel misunderstood: what happens in the conversation, how you respond, how others respond. Keeping a notebook can help, making notes about incidents and observations. Then you might explore other angles of the problem. Spend a week noticing when you think you understand where others are coming from, what you say and do to verify your assumptions, what you do when others seem to feel misunderstood. Spend another week noticing when you feel misunderstood and add the question, was there something else I could have done to help the other person understand me? Did my response increase understanding or increase misunderstanding?

Sometimes we avoid this kind of observation and inquiry because it stirs up feelings of being criticized or dismissed. Admitting the possibility that our perceptions and dearly-held hurts might not always be completely accurate can seem like saying nothing I say or feel is valid. That is not the purpose of this. Self-observation and inquiry is to invite more awareness to the problem, a deeper sense of exploration as to what’s beneath it, and discovering what might be possible. Many of us engaged in this work discover that in subtle ways we contribute to the problem, or we get so caught up in our story that we miss out on other things happening in our lives. On the other hand, you may spend this time observing yourself only to find that you are misunderstood no matter what you do, and you make every effort you know to understand others. At this point, you might be able to safely conclude that the problem is that you’re surrounded by jerks. What a relief it will be to realize it’s not you! And now you have documented evidence!