Sunday, April 13, 2008

Self-Reflection & Idiot Responsibility

by Robert Augustus Masters

Self-reflection is not always what it purports to be. First of all, so much depends on who or what is actually doing the reflecting or introspecting -- for example, if our egoic conditioning is running the show, there won’t be much clarity or depth, given the density of the lens. Our conditioning -- whether gross or subtle, superficial or deep, mundane or metaphysical -- will then tend to make the picks; if we identify with it, then we’ll think that we are making the picks, all but oblivious to our case of mistaken identity.

Secondly, even if we are getting a relatively clear read on what’s happening, we may nonetheless frame it in a way that simply reinforces habits in which we are still entrapped -- for example, if we are dependent on others’ approval or are prone to being overly self-critical, this will likely turn our apparent self-reflection into not much more than an exercise in self-deception, laced with self-flagellation.

We may think that we’re taking an honest look at our part in what has happened -- wanting to see what the situation “says” about us -- but in fact are only assigning too much responsibility (and causal agency) to that part, and too little to others. In letting them off the hook too easily, we simply impale ourselves on our good intentions, perhaps acting as if the resulting pain is an inevitable and even justified consequence of our having fallen short.

And, at the same time, we may feel a certain pride in our apparent willingness to take such an unguarded and probably unflattering look at ourselves, when we are in fact doing something very different -- namely, submitting to our conditioning while acting as if we are not. Such is the essence of idiot responsibility, namely the irresponsible practice of assuming and behaving as if we are being responsible when we’really just taking on --and assuming ownership of -- more responsibility than is actually ours; and such “responsibility” is not necessarily just something which we have taken on ourselves, but can also be inculcated in us by esteemed others.

Just as it’s easy to make our relational difficulties mostly about our partner, it’s just as easy to make them mostly about us. It all depends on which way our accusatory finger is pointing. If it’s aimed at us, the odds are that we are female; if it’s not, the odds are that we are male. Why this is so can be partially answered by considering the emotion that’s most often overlooked in psychotherapy and spiritual practice: shame. Shame usually feels so unpleasant, so painfully exposing, so mortifying, that we understandably want to get away from it as quickly as possible. A particularly common way of doing so is to convert our shame into aggression -- just think of how often those who have been shamed in a film redirect their energies into getting even or getting revenge.

But aggression is not always other-directed; it can also be self-directed. Many (mostly men) turn their shame-based aggression onto their partner, finding fault with, for example, her delivery of what she has to say, thereby conveniently framing her as the messed-up one; and many (mostly women) turn their shame-based aggression back onto themselves, casting an overly critical eye on their shortcomings, or on how they might have better put across their position or needs, thereby cutting their partner too much slack.

This tendency to take too much of the responsibility (which frequently gets degraded into blame) for our relational difficulties is rooted in a crushed, deflated, or otherwise disempowered sense of self, in which love-deserving me is largely supplanted by “bad” or “not-good-enough” me. Seeing how messed up we supposedly are reinforces this diminished sense of self, even as we try to make up for it by being “good” -- admitting our screw-ups, holding ourselves accountable for them, and so on, but taking this too far. Yes, what bothers us about our partner may say plenty about us as well -- as when what we don’t like about them is but a projection of what we don’t like about ourself -- but to assume that whatever bothers us about our partner is no more than a reflection of something less than loving in us simply cuts us off from taking needed stands with our partner, leaving us floundering in the excuse-polluted, confrontation-phobic riptides of idiot compassion.

Some may go so far as to assume, in allegiance to the New Age belief that we literally create our reality, that they -- and they alone -- have literally “created” whatever ills or misfortunes come their way, including in relationship. Such a narcissistic view -- me-centered to the extreme, however humbly, and infused with more than a trace of omnipotent fantasy -- not only bypasses the fact that what others around us are doing inevitably impacts and is impacted by what we are doing, but also is shame-inducing, in that it blames us for things over which we may have either no control or less than full control.

If a girl is raped, and we assume that she has “created” it and is therefore responsible for it (thereby saddling her with the dogma of a particularly pernicious variety of idiot responsibility), we are then, however inadvertently, okaying the rape, perhaps even asking (in spiritually sloppy New Age thinking that’s marooned from common sense and real compassion) what lessons she is trying to give herself by having chosen to be thus raped. (In the pantheon of dumb questions, this is a top contender, all wrapped up in its distorted, insensitive, emotionally vacant, and disembodied metaphysics.) If our partner is abusing us, and we choose to view this as having been created by us, then we are just doing time in a me-centered hell, cut off from any intimacy with the intersubjective space co-created by our partner and us, turned away from the no-bullshit forcefulness and consequence-delivering fierce compassion that our partner may actually need.

Just as there is idiot compassion (acting as if being unrelentingly nice and avoiding taking needed stands is somehow an act of genuine caring), idiot humility (making a virtue out of playing small and not excelling), idiot tolerance (politically correct acceptance and force-fed egalitarianism), and idiot understanding (the disembodied assumption that knowledge is synonymous with wisdom), there is idiot responsibility -- holding ourselves (or lettiing ourselves be held) overly accountable, as if doing so is an act of integrity, when in fact all we’re really doing is setting ourselves up for guilt (after all, if we’ve “created” our cancer, and we just can’t get rid of it, we are failing, aren’t we?).

However, we don’t so much create our reality, as we create our experience of our reality. Yes, we can have a tremendous impact in certain areas, hugely effecting and altering our reality, but that does not mean that we brought it into being. This is a tricky area, because sometimes we can have such an effect on our world that it seems as if we have actually formed or created it, as when a deadly disease miraculously disappears from us. How we are, and how we think, feel, and act, has a definite effect on our reality -- as both quantum physics and genuine spiritual practice demonstrate -- but there are so many factors at play, so many causes and causes of causes and so on ad infinitum, that we cannot conclusively really say -- let alone prove -- that we, and we alone, create our reality. To assume otherwise is to ignore the contingent nature of our existence. We not only exist in relationship, but through relationship -- which means, in part, that creativity is not a solitary but an inherently collaborative process.

If we say to those who have cancer that they have created it, and ask them why they would choose to do so, and what lessons they are trying to give themselves through making themselves so ill, we have, among other things, vastly oversimplified how things actually happen -- there are so many factors involved in their having cancer that there’s no way we can view and take into account all of them -- as well as trying to implant in such people the notion that they must have really screwed up somewhere (beyond obvious inner and outer factors, such as their emotional state and diet) to get so sick, forgetting that many great saints have had cancer, regardless of their degree of illumination.

None of this is to say that we ought not to take full responsibility for what we do with our lives, but that we would do best to only take responsibility for what is our part (which, of course, also takes into account its impact on others). To do more may seem noble or generous, but is really just deflated egoity having its time in the sun, no matter how dark the day. Genuine responsibility does not shame or blame, but simply is the capacity or ability to fittingly respond to what is happening, rather than just reacting to it.

Such responsibility does not fall prey to the inappropriate assuming of agency, but rather stabilizes us, grounding us in real integrity and compassion, preparing us for a deeper life, a life of fully embodied, ever accountable awakening to what we truly are. As we thus awaken, we go beyond belief into self-illuminating experience, no longer seducible by hope (nostalgia for the future) and knowledge, entering a domain where self-reflection is no longer self-deflection and where being responsible is not something we do, but naturally are.

- Contributed by Robert Augustus Masters; originally posted on his blog (January 2007)

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The Integral News and Views blog aims to explore accessible and practical integral perspectives for people who are interested in getting beyond fragmented worldviews, who desire intimacy with all that they are, and who wish to help the world, themselves, and others evolve and thrive in a mutually beneficial and sustainable manner.

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Topher Hunt said...

A beautiful post. Fascinating from my perspective, actually. Tempted by a mind-over-matter New-Age phase, I have fallen into the precise egoic trap that you so elegantly describe as "deflated egoity having its time in the sun, no matter how dark the day". But for me, this has served as a defense holding out hope in my ability to change impossible circumstances, and has actually mildened into a relatively healthy stance, more balanced in causality. However, having the willingness to stand up for myself where I cannot rationally accept blame or responsibility is still a theme for me. Thank you for the elegant insights!

adastra said...

Glad you liked it, Tropher. There's plenty more Robert Augustus Masters material at his website:

I particularly recommend checking out his blog and his newsletter links. Great stuff!