‘L’enfer, c’est les autres’, is a line in Sartre’s play ‘No Exit’.
Hell is other people.
In a typical week in my coaching practice, on social media, in the headlines, in opinion polls, in agony columns, in my own life, family and marriage, this is confirmed over and over again.
Whether it is parents in torment over their child’s anorexia, self harming or behaviour. Or adult children witnessing the decline of their parents. Walking on egg shells around a volatile partner. The agony of watching the suffering of others on the news. Or the terror of racism. The hell of sexual harassment. Or road rage. Or men in general. Or women in general. Or Trump. Or the neighbours. Or the mother in law. Or the slow person at the front of a queue when we have a train to catch.
It seems the world is full of people who intentionally or not, knowingly or obliviously can make our lives hell.
We do everything we can to protect ourselves from this hell. We need to make sure the people we love are happy so that we can be happy. We need to make sure the people we rely on don’t change their minds so we can be secure. We need to make sure the people who frighten us with their beliefs, behaviour or power are made to change. Hell.
Or we live in the equivalent of a cave. Withdrawing into a smaller world. Shunning the individuals or groups who cause us fear or anger. Not risking relationships in case we are betrayed. Pulling up the drawbridge because individuals or groups of people are so toxic or dangerous. Yet no matter what we do, they are always out there. Terrorising our thoughts and our dreams. Hell.
Hmmm. Where do we go with this? I for one don’t want to spend the rest of my life in hell. Tormented and tortured by the emotions and actions of others.
Well how about we look a bit more carefully at this whole set up? How about we consider that we are assuming something that is actually not true.
How about we consider the fact that no one has the power to make us happy, sad, scared, secure, insecure, traumatised, lonely, desperate? Ever.
Let’s look at this crazy idea in relation to the much valued quality that causes us to feel what other people feel – empathy.
And let’s look at it in relation to the protective device deemed necessary in any relationship – boundaries.
Empathy is seen as one of the most fundamental qualities of human kind. Our ability to understand and feel another person’s experience is indicative of an evolved and sensible (in the formal sense of the word) person.
What a wonderful idea.
What a shame it is an utter illusion.
I see my child distraught, crying or harming herself and I am devastated. I feel her sadness. It is as though I myself am immersed in whatever emotion is swamping her body. I feel so distraught myself, I fully know what she must be feeling.
Except I don’t.
How can I?
How can I possibly ever have any idea of what it feels like to be her at any moment ever. I don’t know what is going on in her body or mind. I don’t know what sensations she is experiencing. I never will. Even if she tells me, I still have no idea what personal, momentary experience she is trying to convey.
‘OK’, you might say. ‘I concede that. But you can see her crying. You can see how sad she is. And that is making you sad. It is only natural and expected for you to be sad when your daughter is sad.’
Well, not only do I have absolutely no idea what experience she is having at that moment, my sadness is not caused by hers in anyway. If it were everyone seeing her tears or cries would have exactly the same response. They don’t. If it were, every time she cried I would have exactly the same response. I don’t.
I never have any idea of another’s experience.
Another’s experience or emotional state can never cause an emotional state in me.
This is because my entire experience comes from thought in the moment not from anything that I see around me.
And it is true in every single case.
Every time a post about violence makes me feel sick and shaky with how much I empathise with the victim, I am fooling myself. It is not their pain I am experiencing. It is an experience of thought and pain generated within my own reality. Absolutely nothing to do with the experience of anyone else.
Every time I see a boat load of refugees or a camp of starving children or people siting in bomb torn homes and I feel their absolute desolation, I am fooling myself. It is not their deprivation and hardship I am experiencing. The feelings of sadness and helplessness are mine alone. They are not the sadness and helplessness of another. They are not caused by any image, any situation, any people. They are my temporary experience of thought.
I don’t know another’s experience. I never will. Another’s experience cannot make me feel a certain way. I only ever experience thought moving through me moment by moment.
Great. So what is the outcome of this? If we take away the belief in empathy will we lose our fundamental humanity? In reality, are we essentially psychopaths? Cold hearted callous bastards and bitches ignoring others in pain because it is ‘all just an illusion’. How will I know who to help and what to do? How will I connect with people and show I care about them? How will I fix issues in my kids, my colleagues, the world?
We all know boundaries are important and necessary, right? We have to set them for our children so that they know what behaviour we won’t tolerate, so they grow into responsible adults that respect other people. We have to set them at work so we don’t get dumped on. We have to set them with other people so we don’t get taken advantage of. We have to set them with our partner so that they don’t have affairs all over the place.
Boundaries are about self protection, self-esteem, self-confidence and self respect. They are necessary in a society in which different interests conflict.
What a wonderful idea.
What a shame, they are an utter illusion.
Boundaries, like empathy, are one of the biggest tricks of our crazy mind.
Let’s look at what is really going on.
The fact is that I cannot experience anyone else, not even those closest to me, other than through thought in the moment. I cannot experience my job or my boss or my colleagues directly. I cannot even experience my self.
The experience of all of this – others, situations, jobs, bosses, self – is created from moment to moment, appearing and disappearing, brought to life and then dissolved in the temporary experience that thought creates.
Another way to look at it is that I am all of it. I am my whole experience. There is no outside world in the way my mind creates it, there are no other people with personailites and the power to affect me, there is no permanent self with fixed characteristics that has to be protected.
There is just the energy of thought creating one experience after another of an outside world, of other people, of a self called Clare. And boundaries themselves are part of this illusion.
I cannot build a moat around a castle that is made of thin air. I cannot put armour on a self that morphs from one moment to the next. I cannot shield myself from others because as long as I am believing that others cause me to suffer they always will. The moat, the armour, the shield, the boundaries are as made of thought and are as subject to constant change as the self they are deemed to protect and the other people they are deemed to keep away.
Great. So what is the outcome of this? If I drop the belief that boundaries are necessary will I turn into a total loser, gasping ‘do what ever you want’ as the crowd stampedes over me. Will I put myself in danger? Will I open myself up to people who will steal from me, violate me, laugh at me, disrespect me? How do I navigate a world that changes from moment according to my state of mind?
No possibility of empathy in a world in which we have no idea what another is feeling and in which another’s experience can never cause us sadness.
No possibility that boundaries are anything other than changing thought in a world which is simply our moment to moment experience of thought reflected out.
The marvel of this realisation is that it takes us into reality. (That is what realisations do after all). We come as close as it is humanly (i.e. with a human body that ties us into the world of form) possible to get to what is actually happening.
What is actually happening is that sometimes we have the gift of an experience that looks like it comes from outside us. We get to see a world of other people, of situations, of bosses. We get to be immersed in this experience as though it is is real, as though there is nothing we can do about it.
This same gift – consciousness – also enables us to see that it is not real, that our experience is an incredible special effects, high definition film.
We start to notice how the hell of other people is also the heaven. The heaven of being given a body and a human experience and senses and feelings and a rollercoaster ride from joy to distress, love to hate. This is what people queue for hours for in Disney Land. This is being alive.
Without that separation, without the illusion of other people, there would be no experience of self. We would not have the ability to realise that our consciousness immerses us in the experience of others as if it were really coming from them and gives us the gift to know that experience is simply thought in the moment.
The illusion of empathy and boundaries is part of this gift. In the moments when it looks as though our sadness is caused by the sadness of another or that our separation is necessary (or even possible) we are in the experience. There is nothing we can do but live it. That is the gift of it.
And sometimes we look into the eyes of another and see the magnificence of whatever we are reflected back, we see the other as the simple sameness.
There is stillness. There is curiosity. There is fascination at what our thoughts can create. There is the dissolving of assumptions and the fading of projection. Nothing has to change, not even our suffering. There is just the one all encompassing experience. There is doing or not doing. For the briefest of moments, there is absolute love, absolute peace.
And then we are straight back in it. Hair streaming back, eyes wide as the roller coaster accelerates, rockets, plunges into the heaven and hell of joy, calm, terror, love, dependency, excitement. The whole rainbow. The fragile, ever-changing, infinite combinations of the kaleidoscope of a made up reality. For as long as we are in it, our hearts seem to be, to use that wonderful expression, walking around outside our body. We are vulnerable. It looks like we have to control and change.
And then we stop. We realise.
This separation is the gift of human life.
Without it we would never know that there is nothing to separate.
Hell is other people.
How lucky are we?