In my Principles Against Common Fallacies

7. Spiritual maturity requires a sense of separation.

These days there is a great emphasis in spiritual teachings upon interconnectedness. These ideas have some sense, but should not be taken too far. Separation is also important. Even connectedness requires that there be separate participants. Thus there is a great deal of difference between the kind of relationship in which the people who are together would have no great difficulty managing on their own and the kind where they cling together because they could not face standing on their own feet.

As we grow up we separate from our parents. This separation, however, is often incomplete. We remain psychologically dependent, caught up in playing 'games' around parent figures even long after they are dead. Many young people feel extreme emotions about their parents, often both positive and negative, but when one listens to their accounts one has the sense that the person does not really see the parent as a separate person with reasons of their own. Only when we see our parents as people in their own right can we really arrive at having respect for them. We are told that we should love our parents but one cannot love on demand. However, one can arrive at respect.

The ability to respect is important for spiritual development, for good social relations, for world peace, even. It depends upon seeing and accepting the otherness of the other. It does not come from any sense of merger. If there is love, that is wonderful, but it would be too much to ask that everybody in the world love everybody else. However, respect should be an achievable goal.

Ideas of nonduality are interesting philosophically, but in real life, separation is important both in the sense of the value of solitude and in that of having healthy relationships. The Buddha strongly recommended periods of solitude (as did Leonardo Da Vinci).

Separation in the form of loss can be a great shock and bring acute and prolonged grief when the person lost was close. These breaks can occasion major reoganisation of one's life. Identity is broken up and one gradually pieces together something new out of the bits, welded with new experience. We are very vulnerable at such times. They are, however, not only times of pain, but also of liberation. What is reborn may be for better or for worse.

So separation is a two edged sword. It can help us or harm us; enable us to grow or throw us into panic - often both.

In the work of therapy, we are often concerned to accompany a person through a period of separation of one kind or another and to do so in such a way as to increase the likelihood that the ultimate outcome be positive; that the person emerge more mature, more wise, more compassionate, and less in thrall to ghosts from the past. The process that this involves is well documented in many books. The essential attitude required of the therapist is on the one hand to be willing to enter into the experience of the client fully and on the other hand to not be oneself afraid of the powerful forces that separation can let loose.

When a person experiences a loss, they not only suffer the dukkha of that particular affliction, it also tends to stir up all previous experi3ences of loss too. This can be terribly distressing. It can, however, also be a time to heal not only the present wound, but much that is left over from earlier one's too.

All in all, therefore, separation, whether chosen or thrust upon us, is no small matter. It is accompanied  by major risks and opportunities. We should not minimise it nor its importance. It is a gateway to liberation.

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Replies to This Discussion

Thank you Dharmavidya. This all rings true for me at the moment.

The things you say about separation are really interesting— particularly given that a major life loss/ separation can so easily trigger so many others concomitant losses. We are supposed to learn to be independent and not need one another— but at a time of a great personal loss or illness we are at both our most vulnerable. This vulnerability can come across as the neediness so frowned upon in today's society when everyone already feels stretched to their limits. As a result, without sufficient discipline on the part of the bereaved, without the so called stiff upper lip, they may find themselves well and truly alone.

it seems that often friends disappear because the situation makes them uncomfortable or they don't know how to offer support. They may vanish because the person suffering the loss is suddenly so much not themselves that the underlying bonds of friendship are eroded. The loose, often objective oriented friendships so common in the modern world, seem particularly vulnerable to an individual's change in status or circumstance...

Would you say a bit more about the value/role of having a therapist while going through the aftermath of a great life loss: How does it differ from having the support of friends? And can it substitute for a lack of friendship based support.

I find myself having such mixed feelings about the idea of a therapist as a substitute for disappeared friends, yet this is clearly not a helpful way to think of things at a time when it might be useful to seek skilled help/support..

There are pros and cons. The advantage of a friend is that they are there in the longer term and they may already know one fairly well. The advantage of a therapist is greater objectivity and experience and no axe to grind. Of course, there are therapists and therapists ... and there are friends and friends. There are also spiritual teachers. The important thing is that one actually go through the whole process of grief and this is easier some of the time when somebody else understands. There are also times when it is better to be alone. Contact with nature is often very valuable too because there one experiences the great cycles of birth death and renewal on a grand scale and also nature is not trying to lay a trip on you.

One's pattern of friendships tends to change at a time like this because one is oneself changing. We do not emerge from a major loss as the same old person that we were before. So the people that we connect with may also change. I know that some of my relationships changed after the deaths of my parents.

Unfortunately really good therapists - like really good friends - are not that thick on the ground, but then treasure is generally rare.

Thank you Dharmavidya this discussion is very useful to me

Thank you for this discussion. Maybe a question we could make ourselves could be: How is this particular relationship preparing or helping me to be alone?...Of course we are not going to live thinking like that because it would not be natural, but in some way , this is what happens in therapy. A person is accompanying another one to go through some difficult experience. There is a time for being together, but this particular relationship should serve to help both to finish that period and help the client to go on by his own with greater peace and maturity.

Now I am thinking about the title of your book: “Who loves dies well”…

Thank you Sudha and Nati. The point that Nati makes about preparation for aloneness is quite close to the view that Otto Rank had of therapy. Of course, aloneness and togetherness are always relative and a matter of degree. A person 'alone' means a person coping well in relation to the diversity of things, people, events and processes that one encounters as life goes on. Nonetheless, there is a value in solitude, just as there are richnesses in encounters.

If one turns specifically to the matter of therapy it is interesting to compare it with the teacher-disciple bond in spirituality. The latter can be very long term ("through all bardoes, through all lives") yet still does seek the "ekagata" - the capacity to stand on one's own feet, as we say. Therapy is generally more time limited, but there are extensive debates about whether it is best to end sharply or to wean the client slowly and much depends upon individual cases.

We are each a fragment of the cosmos. Shakyamuni was enlightened when he saw the Morning Star (Venus). We are always somewhere and in relation to something. Why am I here rather than there? Does it matter? Why did Bodhidharma come from the West? To see the cypress tree in the temple yard.

Separation has been a big part of my Buddhist practice this year and so I appreciate your words about that. There is something about calling out to the light and the great forces of nature that the Buddha recognized and connected with that calms the soul and allows one to be at home in the world. Like canoe captain Chadd Paishon says: "If you know your island in your heart, you will never be lost."

DAvid your words about respect and the difference between respect and the word we toss so lightly, "love" really clarify how relationships may be retained. Yes, respect for a teacher, therapist, spiritual guide grows even as the need to experience that person as perfect diminishes. We often confuse our need for the other's perfection with love. Out of this confusion comes a slavish, cultish fixation on some one as better than. 

Respect allows the other person to be imperfect, but making effort. In this way the other becomes a kind of companion walking on the road of life sometimes beside one, sometimes behind, sometimes ahead or off in the distance. The separation remains a function of space and time in this dimension. Apparent, but not absolute. At least these are some ragged thoughts for today on this subject. 

In relation to grief and the seeming final or ultimate separation yes, your words and the words of others above help again to clarify: each person experiencing loss rearranges their sense of self. Neuroscience tells us we map our bodies far beyond our skin, and include in those maps the people we share our time with. So in a very physical way we rearrange who we are when we know they are gone. Loss has helped me sustain a softness towards life, a kind of tenderness, that I would otherwise not have. 

With teachers, David, is it your thought that we retain separateness while working with a teacher? So many teachers seem to desire a kind of connection that may be seen as devotion, or may be seen as cultishness. 

Thanks, Charlene. Devotion is important, but separation is vital. The teacher is helping the disciple to find their way, to grow and mature, to have more faith in life and in the spiritual life. The disciple may be devoted to the teacher, but there needs to be space. Mutual respect then grows. Actually, a spiritual teacher has this kind of attitude to anybody, not just to recognised disciples: may each thrive in their appropriate way! The cultishness thing is a stereotyped or overly dramatised version. A teacher is not really trying to be a teacher or trying to look like a teacher. The teacher naturally gives an example of somebody living fully and naturally, with faith, and this manifests as the qualities that Buddhism praises, but the teacher is not consciously trying to put on these qualities; even less trying to create a kind of theatre with him/herself in the star role. Of course, for the disciple, sometimes the teacher is the star. There is nothing wrong with that in itself. What tends to go wrong is that the disciple then tries to keep the teacher 'in role' so as not to disturb their own image, but this trick does not work for very long because the good teacher is not playing.

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