Robert Thurman on the benefits and disappointments of intimacy

Robert Thurman – scholar, writer, and, endowed chair in Buddhist Studies at Columbia University — will join Rev. Zesho Susan O’Connell, President of San Francisco Zen Center, and Dr. David Bullard, psychotherapist, to discuss The Disappointments of Intimacy: How Buddhist Ideas Can Help Relationships on November 8. (He’s also the co-author, with Sharon Salzberg, of “Know Your Enemy,” from our November 2013 magazine.)

Here Thurman, in discussion with Sachico Ohanks, addresses the benefits and disappointments of intimacy.

What are the benefits of intimacy?

The benefits of intimacy have to do with finding yourself in others and expanding your self-centeredness, so that you think of the perspective of others almost reflexively. You don’t feel your own identity is challenged, and you don’t feel invaded or disturbed by being aware of what other people are feeling and thinking. You automatically have a broader view of any contact with anyone, even a casual interaction, which people might not think of as being intimate. You feel close to other people, because you see yourself from their perspective automatically, without being paralyzed with self-consciousness.

This is the heart of Buddhism, of course, because the second noble truth shows that the source of all of our suffering comes from excessive self-grasping and self-focus.  We call this the self-habit: the self-identity habit, closely connected to the self-importance habit, the self-cherishing habit, the self-preoccupation habit, and all those kinds of things. We have lots of terms for this in, let’s call it, Buddhist psychology.

The first benefit of intimacy is where you fulfill the basic nature of humanity, and you move toward the nature of enlightenment, which is to think of yourself as more than a skin-enclosed being. You feel the feelings of others as at least equal to your own. Since there are more others, you are naturally more preoccupied with others. You shift your focus of attention toward altruism, almost automatically. It isn’t that you feel you are going to be a saint and perform charitable acts. It is altruism because you see what they want and how they see things. When they feel unhappy about the way things seem, that bothers you. Because you feel how they feel, you don’t want them to feel unhappy. In this way you become happier.

According to the famous teaching of Shantideva , Dalai Lama, Buddha, and Nagarjuna, you practice what is called the exchange of self-preoccupation for other-preoccupation, which is a cumbersome way of saying altruism. You exchange selfishness for altruism, which right away makes you feel happier, and as a result, you have a form of enlightened self-interest. As the Dalai Lama says, being selfish means you want something for yourself, you want to be happy. And, if you want to be happy effectively, then think about other people’s happiness and you will be. Think about your own happiness only, and you will always be dissatisfied because you will never have enough.

So, wise selfishness is fulfilling the selfish aim of happiness by forgetting about your happiness and being concerned with the happiness of others. Any degree of intimacy that you can develop with other beings leads to your own happiness through being concerned for their happiness.

What are the disappointments of intimacy?

Disappointment comes when you are not really complete in your altruism. It is hard for us to be complete in our altruism because we are not enlightened beings automatically and easily. We have a lot of self-identity habits, and so our attention to the other is mixed with a desire to use them as objects or subjects or somehow agents of our happiness. When they balk at that and therefore we don’t get enough from them, we are disappointed.

Someone might say, it’s not that I am using her/him to secure my own happiness, it is just that s/he is such a pain. S/he is aggressive with me and mean to me. Even though I want her/him to be happy s/he behaves badly and make me unhappy and disappointed. We externalize and say the other person is the source of our disappointment. But actually, if we focused only on the other’s happiness as a true altruist would, we would be concerned with her/his problem and we won’t be disappointed. We would think we should act to prevent her/him from being unpleasant from her/his unhappiness.

This is where my Buddhist wish is to reinforce the wonderful and, in my view, psychologically profound statement of Jesus, “Love your enemies.” Unfortunately, I think the Christian culture for the most part, except for some saintly monastics in the past and some unusual individuals in the present, thinks it’s impractical: Love your enemies. Oh, how can we do that. Oh, that’s ridiculous. No one can do that. I feel that way myself sometimes, when I am particularly mad or somebody has just dropped a bomb on somebody else or they just dropped a bomb on me.

But actually, it’s very practical because if your enemy is someone who has disappointed you extremely, and is making the effort of being unpleasant to you, that means your enemy isn’t happy. Being unpleasant always makes the person who is being unpleasant feel unpleasant. When you’re unpleasant, you are emanating “unpleasant” so you are apt to feel it first, actually. Love, understood like maitri in Buddhism as being true love, is just the wish for the happiness of the beloved. And if that is the case, then when the enemy is being nasty, you are upset that they are unhappy and you want them to be happy so you love them.

And that doesn’t mean that you just smile and grin idiotically at someone who is punching you in the face. It might be that it is not good for them to punch you in the face, so you might defend or deflect the punch. You might back away or run away. You might hold them from punching, if you can do that without infuriating them more. Whatever you do, you won’t be hating them, attacking back and being unpleasant to them.

You might even be aggressive in a certain way if you are capable of that without anger and without hatred, because there is such a thing as tough love. Sometimes to make someone else happy, it’s better to prevent them from doing something that is going to make them unhappy. It is better for them. And there are extreme cases we would call surgical violence, like if someone is bitten by a snake and they are freaking out. If you are a boy scout or a bush doctor you take a knife and cut a cross in their arm, which is very unpleasant, and suck the poison out of their bloodstream before it goes up their arm toward their heart. That’s violent, cutting with the knife, but you are saving their life. That’s tough love.

Click here for more from Bob Thurman, and here for more from SFZC, here on the Shambhala Sun blog.

One Comment

  1. and water...
    Posted October 23, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Thou anointest my head with oil,
    my cup runneth over

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