Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Forms of Taking Responsibilty

Over at the blog Yoga Journeys, I came across the following in the current post:

Today it became obvious that someone has a problem with me. Now I think most people encounter difficult relationships (or difficult patches in good relationships) from time to time. My self-talk in these moments tends to oscillate between, This is totally not my fault. There's nothing I can do. This person has her own issues, and, I'm a horrible person. I've ruined another relationship. It's all my fault. If only I'd..., I could have prevented this. Most of the time (and probably in this case), it's somewhere in between the two extremes. But also, placing blame is beside the point.

Yep, this definitely describes my reactions to relationship difficulties, at least part of the time. In my case, when these extremes occur, it seems to be coming from a misguided sense of taking responsibility. I mean, we hear all the time in Buddhist teachings about various forms of taking responsibility, right? There's even that old koan about the Zen cook who, upon learning he left a snake head in the soup by mistake, promptly ate it. No bitching, no excuses. He just ate it.

One major difference, perhaps the only real difference, is that the misguided responsibility taking that appears in the Yoga Journey's post, as well as in my own life, is "self-focused." It's all about me. I'm right or I'm wrong.

The form of responsibility taking in that old koan appears to leap past who is right and who is wrong. It's not interested in assigning personal blame; it's about addressing the situation at hand. I'm learning how to do this more in my life, but definitely still leap towards the habitual form of taking responsibility, which just causes more trouble.

What's interesting about the whole "I've ruined the relationship" narrative described above is that, in my case anyway, I'm coming to see that I often over-estimate the impact of conflicts I have with others. There's no doubt that on certain issues, I am direct, outspoken, and clearly outside of the norm in my views. And this does ruffle some feathers. However, given a shift that I'd like to credit my Zen and yoga practices for, what seems to happen more often these days is that I experience the intensity of emotion tied to whatever issue I speaking about with someone, but what I actually say and how I say it doesn't seem to cause the kind of intensity I'm feeling. In other words, it feels like I'm saying something that could cause a major rift between myself and others, but the actual action doesn't do so.

On the flip side, the "This is totally not my fault." narrative is an underestimation of my general impact in an given situation. In fact, it comes up most fiercely when I actually do have some responsibility, but don't want to take it, or want the other person to step up first.

Both of these narratives play into, for me anyway, a larger story I have long held onto having to do with finality. I tend to lean towards clear resolution rather than ambiguity. This isn't too smart in a world full of ambiguity.

For example, I remember dating a woman a few years back who did a few odd things about three weeks after we started dating. Nothing awful, just things that caused question marks for me. However, instead of getting to know her a little better and seeing if these were regular patterns, or isolated incidents, I went for the jugular and ended the relationship. Now, this could have been for the best, but looking back, I see how that decision was mostly about protecting myself from the ambiguity of being with someone who might turn out to be "wrong for me" later. But isn't that true of every romantic relationship in the beginning? We don't really know, no matter how many sparks fly.

This isn't to say that every situation calls for hanging around, watching, and waiting with uncertainty. Some situations demand decisive action, and some relationships require clear and unambiguous yeas or nays. But that decisiveness needs to come from something much larger than "I or my," otherwise it ends up reinforcing the very separate sense of self that we practitioners hope to break down.

This might be a useful way to check in about any form of responsibility. Is it about protecting "me, myself, and I" in someway? Asking that question could be a way to let drop off those dramatic forms of claiming experiences in our lives that don't, at the end of the day, serve to awaken. Or, at the very least, it might help you pause, even if you can't determine if you are responding appropriately or not.


Unknown said...

interesting post... makes me thoughtful.

My challenge is accepting all blame to myself... and internalizing the problem. My life long lesson is how not to be a doormat! I tend to take it all on board and not consider the dynamics of others.

Great post.

Sabio Lantz said...

Good wonderings.

Some folks have very poor skills at protecting themselves. They need diligence in this area. They need encouragement of seeing danger in others.

Some folks see themselves always as the hero. They need to learn humility, to eat the snake head, to grab responsibility and perhaps then learn to hang around longer.

There ain't just these two type of people. These traits vary between various aspects of our selves. Thus the prescription of "What to Do" is complex. For this we are fortunate to have friends and teachers to triangulate these turbulent waters in our minds.

Sara said...

Love this post! This completely describes how I think of things if I have a problem with someone - it's ALL their fault...or it's ALL my fault! It's funny to see the mind at work like this. I've taken to just noticing the wrestling, cramped feeling of my body as I go back and forth between the two extremes.