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Thread: Over-identification

  1. #1
    Senior Member AlanLa's Avatar
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    Over-identification

    Is the opposite of nihilism unbridled compassion? What happens when instead of saying absolutely nothing matters a person says instead that everything they do matters absolutely? What happens when compassion for others becomes so strong that it becomes a burden, its own form of suffering?

    I was doing some counseling with a student the other night and he felt a very acute responsibility to others. He had sort of a karmic view that his behavior impacts others and that this made him responsible for others to the extreme, even being responsible for people multiple degrees of separation away from him. He's a very sweet, non-buddhist, (overly) sensitive, well-meaning guy that wants to do right by everyone, and he means everyone, but he has taken it to such an extreme that he has created a tremendously heavy burden of responsibility that he can't possibly carry. I know the short answer here is that he needs to find a middle way, and I know how I am going to further counsel this student, but it's the big issue his situation brings up that interests me.

    We often caution about being too nihilistic, but what about being too caring?

  2. #2
    Blue Mountain White Clouds Hermitage Priest Taigu's Avatar
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    Re: Over-identification

    AlanLa,

    For what it is worth, just a quick thought. You suggest a Middle way could possibly help him. Not knowing the person and not being at all a therapist does not allow me to voice my opinion, nevertheless, as a Buddhist I would say that if compassion arises from the over crowded self, with its agendas and bundle of fears and hopes, it is going to be a burdening experience. True compassion arises from the cultivation of no mind whereas sentimental compassion has an over-emotional edge. If compassion is rooted in egolessness, then no problem, you may undertake to save all beings, and it will start here and now with very humble and down to earth things and not playing the new super hero or being paralysed by responsability. Compassion and wisdom should work together. Compassion without wisdom, and we go down a sentimental road, wisdom without compssion and we are harsh and dry. And the Middle way does not mean a way in the middle. Right behaviour doesn 't mean balanced behaviour, behaving with measure, or anything like it, it is a path that goes beyond the pair of opposites, a path where one is one with ( which is, I seem to remember, a better translation of the sankrit sama which is usually translated as right...no comment!).

    Beyond being over caring and totally careless...being carefree .

    (Sorry, pretty messy post but it is Sunday morning, just got up and feel very tired from an over hectic week...)

    gassho


    Taigu

  3. #3
    Senior Member AlanLa's Avatar
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    Re: Over-identification

    Thank you, Taigu. Very helpful. You wrote:
    as a Buddhist I would say that if compassion arises from the over crowded self, with its agendas and bundle of fears and hopes, it is going to be a burdening experience. True compassion arises from the cultivation of no mind whereas sentimental compassion has an over-emotional edge.
    Yes, this is where he is at: he is currently an over burdened self that is suffering emotionally.

    If compassion is rooted in egolessness, then no problem, you may undertake to save all beings, and it will start here and now with very humble and down to earth things and not playing the new super hero or being paralysed by responsability.
    His ego makes him try to be a superhero and the result is failure because he can't possibly live up to that standard. No one can, but the ego tricks us into trying... and ultimately failing. I think this gets to the heart of my question. Ego-less compassion knows no limits, but ego-full compassion will run us into a brick wall at some point.

    Compassion and wisdom should work together. Compassion without wisdom, and we go down a sentimental road, wisdom without compssion and we are harsh and dry.
    This makes me think of the serenity prayer (Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference) as it would apply to ego-less compassionate responsibility.

    And the Middle way does not mean a way in the middle. Right behaviour doesn't mean balanced behaviour, behaving with measure, or anything like it, it is a path that goes beyond the pair of opposites, a path where one is one with ( which is, I seem to remember, a better translation of the sankrit sama which is usually translated as right...no comment!).
    I think I misuse the term "middle way" a lot, because I do tend to fall back on the old (pre-buddhist) meaning of in the middle or balanced or measured. Thanks for the reminder.

    So I think I asked the wrong question to start, because the nihilism and compassion I was referring to are both ego-based, and if I stay in that dualistic system there is no way out of suffering. So the "trick" is to transcend that system and move into ego-less compassion for all beings, and one way to do that is zazen. I sort of thought of that this morning while reciting the bodhisattva vows after zazen.

    Thanks again!

  4. #4
    Senior Member AlanLa's Avatar
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    Re: Over-identification

    One more thought:
    From an ego standpoint, a person can become attached to compassion.
    But from an ego-less compassion, a person IS compassion.
    yes?

  5. #5
    Blue Mountain White Clouds Hermitage Priest Taigu's Avatar
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    Re: Over-identification

    Yes, and when one is compassion, one and compassion both disappear. Shin jin datsu raku. Body and mind dropped.

    gassho


    Taigu

  6. #6
    Senior Member AlanLa's Avatar
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    Re: Over-identification

    Very nice! Very cool! Very helpful!

    But for all of us still struggling with our egos, wouldn't desire to be compassionate be a wholesome desire (chanda)? But when that desire is carried to an extreme to the point of attachment it becomes an unwholesome desire (tanha), right?

    Kliff reminded me of those concepts in the Desire thread:
    The Pali canon refers to two kinds of desire: tanha and chanda. Chanda is wholesome desire (desire for taking refuge, desire to uphold the precepts, desire to practice zen, etc.) and tanha is the thirsting desire of clinging attachment. The latter is to be avoided because it leads to suffering.

  7. #7
    Treeleaf Unsui Dosho's Avatar
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    Re: Over-identification

    Hi Alan,

    You raise an interesting concept that I haven't ever brought up but that has consumed my thoughts at times. In my case, I am always looking to fufill others' needs before my own because I want everyone to like me. To leave a room without having some idea that the people I encountered liked me is basically torture, as is having the sense that someone particularly didn't like me. I'm not saying that this is what was happening with your student, but it sounded very familiar. In my family my mother's needs were always put before my father, brother and I. Even as a preschooler I was expected to anticipate her needs, solve her problems, and soothe her emptiness. All that left me with this programming to feel responsible for others, even their reactions, because my thoughts and actions may have caused their distress.

    I guess all I'm saying is that I do think there can be reasons why someone can seem overly sensitive and extremely compassionate to the outside world, but I think it may indicate a lack of compassion for oneself. It is a great burden to think that everything you do affects everyone else, which is ironic because buddhism seeks to teach that concept for those who do not understand it. My mother is a narcissist and while I am not in most circumstances, the idea that I can affect the behavior, attitudes, and whether or not I am liked is an absurd and self absorbed concept.

    True compassion starts at home and unless you can successfully offer it to yourself I think it is nearly impossible to go beyond that. People like me (and your student if I have even come close to the target here) continue to try anyway and drive ourselves completely bonkers.

    So, that may not be at all helpful (see, I'm trying to gauge whether you like me or not), but it did come to mind.

    Gassho,
    Dosho

  8. #8
    Senior Member AlanLa's Avatar
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    Re: Over-identification

    I like you, Dosho. Rest easy on that.

    There is this interesting contradiction here about compassion though, isn't there. I think you hit it on the head when you said "lack of compassion for yourself." It's sort of like the ego has to be strong enough to let the ego go, and compassion for yourself has to be strong enough to not worry about yourself, or something like that, going off the top of my head here. My student thinks he is doing it for other people, but he isn't, He's doing it so HE feels better, not them, and that flawed method will never succeed because it's too ego-driven, as Taigu pointed out.

  9. #9

    Re: Over-identification

    As for the original case, I've heard it said several times that we spend all our lives trying to atone for whatever sin led us to be exiled from the Eden of our mother's uterus ... that the shock of the first few days of life, of being separate, is something many (most?) people never resolve. For that and other reasons, many people carry non-specific guilt with them all their lives, and trying to do great things for others can be a way of seeking redemption.

    Since the thread has generalized since the first post about a specific individual ... one other reason people become overly concerned about the welfare of others is fear: not willing to face something in oneself (such as emptiness), they take great care of others external to them.

    swb

  10. #10
    disastermouse
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    Re: Over-identification

    Real emptiness isn't frightening - it's just the natural state of the world. What causes fear is a sense of lack, whether real or perceived.

    In my own life, I've felt the pain of loneliness and singledom. It wasn't real, and even though I've been sans relationship for a few months again, I don't feel the same sense of lack. I also don't care as much whether people like me...and oddly, it seems more people do. I'm also not talking about a sense of repression. I'm not actively discouraging romantic entanglements either. Also, I do realize that a social support structure is necessary and work to keep my social commitments while also enjoying them.

    From personal experience, I can say I'm nothing like your client..and so I may have a hard time relating.

    Everyone's got issues. Maybe if I knew why my own have abated, I could offer more insight. Can intense psychotherapy have delayed effects?

    Good luck helping your client!

    (Oh yeah - I like you too, Dosho!)

    Chet

  11. #11

    Re: Over-identification

    Dosho--

    In my past experience, I was a lot like your client. It seems. But after starting to meditate and read what you and others have written, here and in books, about Buddhism and other philosophies-- I now seem to be behaving more like Chet. His words resonated with me.

    It really is so much easier, and seems to work better. I even find myself getting along with enemies, because the idea is not to rile them, not to change them, but just accept them, and even accept and almost enjoy their dislike of me-- as long as I feel that I am being respectful toward them, their dislike just translates as their own form of meditation! Not enjoying this in a smug way, or a perverse masochistic way, but simply thinking, I cannot know who or what this person truly is. They are the same/not same as me. We are both meditating right now. How amusing. I will try to stay out of their way and go about my own business.

    It works the same way for compassion, for me. Before, it was normal to be nice to friends because they were "special" in some way, or I liked them more. Now, I am just respectful of everyone. The people I am closer to, the bond is older and deeper so I can anticipate/understand their needs better, but really... everyone deserves compassion. But it is not a game. People have a responsibility to tell you their needs as well. We are all "doing our do". It's not my place to sit and guess other's needs all day, because who am I? I want to see people as I would want to see anything-- appreciate what I can of them until they are returned to from where they came. Everyone and everything could be treated as a cherished guest-- welcomed, respected, allowed, but not possessed or grasped.

    Mandy

  12. #12

    Re: Over-identification

    Quote Originally Posted by Manatee
    Everyone and everything could be treated as a cherished guest-- welcomed, respected, allowed, but not possessed or grasped.

    Mandy
    Just those few words ... a fine perspective for all people and events that we meet in life.

  13. #13
    Senior Member AlanLa's Avatar
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    Re: Over-identification

    At the risk of mucking up Mandy's fine prose I would like to try an build on it with an analogy. Buddhist compassion is like being a luxury hotel that views people as a cherished and respected guest while allowing them their freedom, whereas suffering compassion is like Hotel California (for us Eagles fans) where people can check in but never leave.

  14. #14
    Stephanie
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    Re: Over-identification

    Quote Originally Posted by AlanLa
    At the risk of mucking up Mandy's fine prose I would like to try an build on it with an analogy. Buddhist compassion is like being a luxury hotel that views people as a cherished and respected guest while allowing them their freedom, whereas suffering compassion is like Hotel California (for us Eagles fans) where people can check in but never leave.
    I like this a lot, Alan. Gassho.

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