Sunday, July 6, 2014

Black and White Thinking the Middle Path and Relationships

Black and white thinking has been a burden in my life. Like a light switch that is either on or off, I judge most things through the lens of either ‘all’ or ‘nothing’. The Buddha spoke of the middle path – something quite different.

“People with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome tend towards black and white thinking.  They see themselves and the world around them in polar opposites…” - Temple Grandin

Siddhartha (the Buddha) dedicated himself to finding a way to end human suffering. He abandoned his former way of life, and dedicated himself to a life of extreme asceticism. So harsh was this way of life that he grew thin enough that he could feel his hands if he placed one on the small of his back and the other on his stomach. In this state of wretched concentration, in heroic but futile self-denial, he overheard a teacher speaking of music. If the strings on the instrument are set too tight, then the instrument will not play harmoniously. If the strings are set too loose, the instrument will not produce music. Only the middle way, not too tight and not too loose, will produce harmonious music. This chance conversation changed his life overnight. The goal was not to live a completely worldly life, nor was it to live a life in complete denial of the physical body, but to live in a Middle Way. The way out of suffering was through concentration, and since the mind was connected to the body, denying the body would hamper concentration, just as overindulgence would distract one from concentration. “ -  The Historical Siddhartha

What does this mean in regards to relationships with other people? When I experience a Movie or TV show or band, and I like it, I want to know everything about it. If I’m not into it, I want nothing to do with it. I notice that most people have more of a casual relationship with things that they like. When they are exposed to them, they enjoy it for the moment, and then casually move on to the next thing. This is fine when we are talking about entertainment or objects and the like, but what does this mean when we are talking about people?

I notice, that when I like someone, I want to know everything about them, and that what they say, think or feel really matters to me. If it is somebody who I don’t feel that way about, I really don’t care what they think, do or say. Their impact on me is pretty minimal, but if I am into you, you can impact me like a giant ocean wave.

Again, I notice most people have a more casual relationship with each other, where attention from strangers and acquaintances can make a difference and any one person cannot be so dominating.

So how do we deal with this? The fact is we need to have relationships with people, and most people do not have the black and white perspective that we do. This leads us to misinterpret other people’s intentions when we judge them from a black and white standard. It also makes us feel unfulfilled from personal relationships when they do not meet out standards.

For the most part – they will never meet our standard. Most people just don’t think  like we do.

The Buddha’s message of the ‘middle way’ applies to all aspects of our life, especially when it comes to personal relationships. No one will meet our extreme desire for complete attention and we misinterpret that lack of as total rejection. The truth is somewhere in the middle ground that is so hard for us to live in.

So how do we live in that middle path? The Dharma teaches us that our worth as a person isn't dependent on what others think of us. If we start thinking that way, it is our practice – mindful awareness, that we need to turn to in order to go back to the present moment and focus on the here an now and not some incorrect evaluation of what we think what others feel about us.

The Buddha spoke how our thoughts are like a pebble landing in a pond. Each pebble that hits the pond creates waves in the water like how thoughts create waves within out psyche. By our meditation practice, we are able to observe our thoughts from an unattached perspective. This moment of observation is the first moment of enlightenment. When we are able to observe our thoughts, and not immediately react and identify with them, we are turning that pond into an ocean. Like how pebbles dropped into a great ocean will only have a small impact, our thoughts when observed will not overwhelm us like pebbles in a pond. This gives us the ability to recognize our unskillful the black and white thinking, and put things in the proper perspective which is some where in the middle – the middle path.